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.

(2021) "Stay the Hand of Justice? US Resistance to the International Criminal Court." In Boyer, Mark, A. and Cameron Thies, (Editors). Symposium: Did "America First" Construct America Irrelevant? International Studies Perspectives 22(4): 483–486.

Author: Kelebogile Zvobgo

The United States, a key architect of global governance institutions in the twentieth century, has moderated its international engagement in the twenty-first century. In climate governance, the United States signed but did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, then acceded to but ultimately withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord. In trade, the United States entered but later abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And in human rights, the United States 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 United States’ 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 United States’ refusal to join the ICC, the apogee of the international criminal justice system that it helped build. I argue that, despite the efforts of antiglobalists and rule-of-law obstructionists like Donald Trump, the United States 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

The globalization of political, economic, and judicial institutions in the 20th century was assumed to be durable and long lasting. But, today, international organizations (IOs) find themselves under stress. Citizens do not reliably support international jurisdiction over their countries and many governments are defying IO rules, if not withdrawing from IOs altogether. Can this tide be turned and, if so, how? We consider a class of IOs bound by a principle called complementarity: the IO only acts when domestic institutions fail. IOs like the International Criminal Court (ICC) have placed great faith in complementarity as a tool to spur domestic action and rally support for international action when it is needed. We evaluate the effectiveness of complementarity arguments using the largest global public opinion survey on the ICC to date (N = 10,402). We focus on five countries whose cooperation may prove pivotal for the Court: Georgia, the United States, Israel, the Philippines, and South Africa. We find very limited evidence that complementarity arguments improve public support for either ICC investigations or domestic investigations. In only one country (Israel) did complementarity improve support for those outcomes, but only marginally. Complementarity decreased support for the ICC in South Africa and decreased support for domestic investigations in the Philippines. These results suggest that complementarity, and other pro-IO arguments predicated on democratic procedure or fairness, may not turn the growing tide of opposition to international institutions.

"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 touted itself as a standard bearer of international criminal justice, leading the establishment of multiple international tribunals, from Germany and Japan to the Balkans and Rwanda. The United States even participated in the drafting of the governing treaty of the International Criminal Court (ICC). 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. atrocity 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 two important questions: (1) is the public's support conditional on the ICC not investigating and prosecuting U.S. personnel and (2) what discursive frames support or undermine the ICC's efforts? Building on the literature on U.S. foreign policy public opinion, we theorize that human rights frames increase and national interest frames decrease support for the ICC's work in Afghanistan. We administer an online survey experiment to test these expectations. We also explore Americans' preferred venue for war crimes prosecutions: the ICC, U.S. domestic courts, or foreign domestic courts.