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Punishment and Politicization in the International Human Rights Regime

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 November 2021

University of Chicago, United States
University of Chicago, United States
Rochelle Terman, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Chicago, United States,
Joshua Byun, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science, University of Chicago, United States,


Conventional wisdom treats politicization in the international human rights regime as invariant: for any given violation, states condemn adversaries while coddling friends. However, we find that politicization patterns vary markedly across human rights issues. Some norms are more politicized than others, and states are more likely to punish geopolitical partners on certain violations. We offer a novel theory of politicized enforcement wherein states punish human rights violations discriminatively based on their perceived “sensitivity” for the target state. Using data from the UN Universal Periodic Review, an elaborate human rights mechanism, we show that states tend to criticize their adversaries on sensitive issues that undermine the target regime’s power and legitimacy while addressing safer topics with friends. By uncovering a strategic logic of human rights enforcement, this research contributes new theoretical insights on the relationship between norms and power politics in global governance.

Research Article
© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

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