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Questions of life and death: (De)constructing human rights norms through US public opinion surveys

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 April 2019

Alexandria Nylen
Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Charli Carpenter*
Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
*Corresponding author. Email:


Public opinion polls on national security issues are often seen as indicators of the strength of international human rights norms. By contrast, we hypothesise that the very act of answering poll questions can weaken citizens’ understandings of important international human rights laws and norms in the very moment they are being measured. We ground this discussion empirically by analysing a new dataset of post-9/11 survey questions on two US national security policies at odds with international human rights norms: ‘enhanced interrogations’ and ‘targeted killing’. In so doing, we encourage a widened research agenda on how international legal and normative understandings are transmitted to the public through surveys. We conclude by highlighting substantive implications for norm scholars and policy implications for norm advocates.

Research Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 2019 

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70 We define this code, which we call ‘Priming for Violation’, as follows: ‘Without explaining international law, question encourages or invites respondent to consider the appropriateness or effectiveness of practices that would violate non-derogable human rights law/norms such as torture or killing criminal suspects without trial, or asks respondents about the conditions under which they would approve of these practices. For extrajudicial killing, do not use this code if the survey question explicitly states that a situation of armed conflict is present.’

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116 See Kreps, ‘Flying under the radar’. In particular, although Kreps questions subjects in the treatment group about international war law concepts such as civilian harm, proportionality, and legal authorization, these questions assume that a situation of armed conflict exists and that a war law framework applies. This is contrary to the opinion of many international lawyers. Thus, Kreps's study itself thus also contains ‘disputed assumptions embedded in questions’ – assumptions consistent with a mainstream, elite government narrative about which laws matter, and one that frames the question about the legitimacy of drones as a tool rather than so-called ‘targeted killings’ as a policy.