International Law and Courts

(2020) "Reserving Rights: Explaining Human Rights Treaty Reservations."International Studies Quarterly 64(4): 785–797.


Authors: Kelebogile ZvobgoWayne Sandholtz, and Suzie Mulesky

  • 2019 Best Paper Award, Human Rights Section, American Political Science Association 

International relations scholarship has made significant strides in explaining how states design treaty obligations and why they accept treaty commitments. However, far less attention has been paid to factors that may influence states’ modification of their treaty obligations via reservations. We theorize that states will be more likely to enter reservations when treaty obligations increase compliance costs and policy adjustment costs. More specifically, we expect that demanding provisions, i.e., provisions that create strong, precise obligations requiring domestic action, will enhance the likelihood of reservation. To test our theory, we exploit an original dataset that codes reservations at the provision (treaty–article–paragraph) level for the ten core international human rights treaties. Consistent with our expectations, we find that states are more likely to enter reservations on more demanding treaty provisions. In contrast to prior studies, our results indicate that reservations are not driven purely by state-level characteristics such as regime type or the nature of the legal system. Rather, it appears that states weigh individual treaty obligations and calibrate their commitments accordingly.

"Stay the Hand of Justice? US Resistance to the International Criminal Court"

In the symposium, Did "America First" Construct America Irrelevant? Mark A. Boyer and Cameron Thies, eds.

Conditionally accepted at International Studies Perspectives.

Author: Kelebogile Zvobgo

The United States, a key architect of global governance institutions in the 20th century, has moderated its international engagement in the 21st century. In climate governance, the U.S. signed but did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, then acceded to but ultimately withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord. In trade, the U.S. entered but later abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And in human rights, the U.S. failed to join core treaties like the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The U.S.'s withdrawal from these and other international regimes sparks the question: Has 'America First' made America irrelevant? I focus my answer to this question on the U.S.'s refusal to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), the apogee of the international criminal justice system that it helped build. I argue that, despite the efforts of anti-globalists and rule-of-law obstructionists like Donald Trump, the U.S. remains relevant to international criminal justice and may yet strengthen it, albeit unintentionally.

"Do Human Rights Treaty Obligations Matter for Ratification?"

Invited to revise and resubmit at Journal of Conflict Resolution.

Authors: Suzie Mulesky, Wayne Sandholtz, and Kelebogile Zvobgo

Why do some human rights treaties receive rapid and near universal commitment from states while others take decades for the majority of states to ratify? We analyze new data that code every provision of ten global human rights treaties for the strength and precision of the obligations they contain. We classify obligations that are strong, precise, and that require domestic action as “demanding.” We hypothesize that treaties containing more of these demanding obligations would be seen as more costly to ratify because they imply potentially greater policy adaptation or compliance costs. Event history analyses are consistent with that hypothesis. The addition of 15 demanding treaty obligations decreases the likelihood of ratification by over 20 percent, similar to the effect of moving from democracy to autocracy. This effect is consistent when controlling for various treaty, state, and global level factors that may also influence a state’s decision to ratify.

"Complementarity and Public Views on Overlapping Domestic and International Courts"

In progress.

Authors: Kelebogile Zvobgo and Stephen Chaudoin

A growing regime complex of domestic and international legal institutions have overlapping jurisdictions for violations of international law. In many contexts, the jurisdiction of the international court is restricted by the principle of "complementarity": the international court can only intervene in countries where governments have proved unwilling or unable to conduct investigations or plaintiffs have exhausted domestic remedies. We ask whether complementarity (a) increases support for international courts’ actions and (b) increases support for domestic remedies as a way to forestall international court action. International courts, especially the International Criminal Court, rely heavily on an affirmative answer to both questions. We assess these predictions with a survey experiment about the ICC in the Republic of Georgia with qualitative data from interviews with civil society actors and policy makers. We do not find that this particular framing improves support for ICC or domestic court actions. These results indicate that arguments about complementarity are unlikely to reduce negative public opinion against international courts and international organizations, more generally. We now plan to replicate the results with a survey experiment about the ICC in Afghanistan, where U.S. and non-U.S. forces and intelligence are suspected of war crimes.

"Do Americans Support War Crimes Prosecutions?"

In progress.

Authors: Kelebogile Zvobgo and Alan J. Simmons

Do Americans support war crimes prosecutions? Historically, the United States has presented itself as a standard bearer of international criminal justice, contributing to the establishment of multiple international tribunals, including in Germany, the Balkans, and Rwanda. The U.S. even participated in the drafting of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Yet, the nation has never itself been the subject of an international criminal tribunal—until now. In 2020, the ICC’s chief prosecutor opened a formal investigation into alleged U.S. war crimes relating to the war in Afghanistan. Prior research shows that Americans support the ICC and U.S. membership. However, this work precedes the Afghanistan investigation, leaving open the question of whether Americans’ support of the Court is conditional on U.S. personnel not being under investigation and what discursive frames support or undermine the ICC. Building on U.S. foreign policy public opinion research, we theorize that human rights frames increase support for the ICC’s Afghanistan investigation, while national interest frames decrease support. We administer an online survey experiment to test these expectations. In addition, we explore Americans’ preferred venue for war crimes prosecutions: the ICC, national courts, or the courts of foreign nations.

© 2021 by International Justice Lab.