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Human Rights Institutions, Sovereignty Costs and Democratization


Why do countries join international human rights institutions, when membership often yields few material gains and constrains state sovereignty? This article argues that entering a human rights institution can yield substantial benefits for democratizing states. Emerging democracies can use the ‘sovereignty costs’ associated with membership to lock in liberal policies and signal their intent to consolidate democracy. It also argues, however, that the magnitude of these costs varies across different human rights institutions, which include both treaties and international organizations. Consistent with this argument, the study finds that democratizing states tend to join human rights institutions that impose greater constraints on state sovereignty.

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School of International Relations and Pacific Studies and Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego (email:; Department of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania (email:; Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison (email: ). Earlier versions of this article were presented at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Toronto; the 2012 annual convention of the International Studies Association, San Diego; and colloquia at the University of Chicago Law School, Dartmouth College, Duke University, Princeton University, Stanford University, University of Virginia and University of Wisconsin. For helpful comments and suggestions, we are grateful to the participants in these conferences and seminars, in particular Alice Kang, Kal Raustiala, Peter Rosendorff, Jana von Stein and Erik Voeten. For research assistance, we thank Tana Johnson, Kathryn Chylla, Devra Cohen, and especially Felicity Vabulas. Data replication sets and online appendices are available at

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