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

  • Alexandria Nylen (a1) and Charli Carpenter (a1)

Abstract

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.

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*Corresponding author. Email: charli.carpenter@gmail.com

References

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1 Holsti, Ole R., Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004); Simmons, Beth, Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); however, see Jacobs, Lawrence R. and Shapiro, Robert Y., Politicians Don't Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000).

2 Kreps, Sarah, ‘Flying under the radar: a study of public attitudes towards unmanned aerial vehicles’, Research & Politics, 1:1 (2014), pp. 17; Wallace, Geoffrey P. R., ‘International law and public attitudes toward torture: an experimental study’, International Organization, 67:1 (2013), pp. 105–40.

3 Horowitz, Michael C., ‘Public opinion and the politics of the killer robots debate’, Research & Politics, 3:1 (2016), pp. 18; Adam S. Chilton and Mila Versteeg, ‘International law, constitutional law, and public support for torture’, Research & Politics (January–March 2016), pp. 1–9; Sagan, Scott and Valentino, Benjamin, ‘Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran: What Americans really think about nuclear weapons’, International Security, 42:1 (2017), pp. 4179.

4 Chilton, Adam and Tingley, Dustin, ‘Why the study of international law needs experiments’, Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, 52:1 (2013), pp. 173237; Wallace, ‘International law and public attitudes toward torture’; Kreps, ‘Flying under the radar’.

5 Simmons, Mobilizing for Human Rights; Risse-Kappen, Thomas, Ropp, Stephen C., and Sikkink, Kathryn (eds), The Persistent Power of Human Rights: From Commitment to Compliance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

6 Chilton and Tingley, ‘Why the study of international law needs experiments’.

7 Simmons, Mobilizing for Human Rights.

8 Keck, Margaret E. and Sikkink, Kathryn, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998); Murdie, Amanda and Dursun, Peksen, ‘The impact of human rights INGO activities on economic sanctions’, The Review of International Organizations, 8:1 (2013), pp. 3353.

9 Keck and Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders; Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink (eds), The Persistent Power of Human Rights.

10 Baum, Matthew A. and Potter, Philip B. K., ‘The relationships between mass media, public opinion, and foreign policy: Toward a theoretical synthesis’, Annual Review of Political Science, 11:1 (2008), pp. 3965 (p. 44); Mueller, John E., War, Presidents, and Public Opinion (New York: Wiley, 1973).

11 Tomz, Michael, Reputation and the Effect of International Law on Preferences and Beliefs (Stanford: Stanford University, 2008).

12 Ibid., p. 5.

13 Kreps, Sarah E. and Wallace, Geoffrey P. R., ‘International law, military effectiveness, and public support for drone strikes’, Journal of Peace Research, 53:6 (2016), pp. 830–44.

14 Walsh, James I., ‘Precision weapons, civilian casualties, and support for the use of force’, Political Psychology, 36:5 (2015), pp. 507–23 (p. 519).

15 Wallace, ‘International law and public attitudes toward torture’, p. 134.

16 Chilton and Versteeg, ‘International law, constitutional law, and public support for torture’.

17 Gartner, Scott Sigmund, ‘The multiple effects of casualties on public support for war: an experimental approach’, American Political Science Review, 102:1 (2008), pp. 95106.

18 Grieco, Joseph, Gelpi, Christopher, Riefler, Jason, and Feaver, Peter, ‘Let's get a second opinion: International institutions and American support for war’, International Studies Quarterly, 55:2 (2011), pp. 563–83.

19 Horowitz, ‘Public opinion and the politics of the killer robots debate’.

20 Press, Daryl G., Sagan, Scott D., and Valentino, Benjamin A., ‘Atomic version: Experimental evidence on taboos, traditions, and the non-use of nuclear weapons’, American Political Science Review, 107:1 (2013), pp. 188206.

21 Brian Rathbun and Rachel Stein, ‘Greater goods: Morality and attitudes toward nuclear weapons’, Journal of Conflict Resolution (forthcoming).

22 Finnemore, Martha and Sikkink, Kathryn, ‘International norm dynamics and political change’, International Organization, 52.4 (1998), pp. 887917; Ramos, Howard, Ron, James, and Thoms, Oskar N. T., ‘Shaping the northern media's human rights coverage, 1986–2000’, Journal of Peace Research, 44:4 (2007), pp. 385406; Murdie, Amanda, Help or Harm: The Human Security Effects of International NGOs (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014).

23 Davis, David R., Murdie, Amanda, and Steinmetz, Coty Garnett. ‘“Makers and shapers”: Human rights INGOs and public opinion’, Human Rights Quarterly, 34:1 (2012), pp. 199224.

24 Simmons, Mobilizing for Human Rights, p. 224.

25 Merry, Sally Engle, Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

26 Krook, Mona L. and True, Jacqui, ‘Rethinking the life cycles of international norms: the United Nations and the global promotion of gender equality’, European Journal of International Relations, 18:1 (2012), pp. 103–27; Barnett, Michael N. and Finnemore, Martha, Rules for the World: International Organizations in Global Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).

27 Eichenberg, Richard C., ‘Victory has many friends: U.S. public opinion and the use of military force, 1981–2005’, International Security, 30:1 (2005), pp. 40177; Grieco et al., ‘Let's get a second opinion’.

28 Bob, Clifford, The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Cooley, Alexander, Deibert, Ron, and Merloe, Patrick, ‘Authoritarianism goes global’, Journal of Democracy, 26:3 (2015), pp. 4963.

29 Schuman, Howard and Presser, Stanley, Questions and Answers in Attitude Surveys: Experiments on Question Form, Wording, and Context (New York: Academic Press, 1981); Hogarth, Robin M. (ed.), Question Framing and Response Consistency (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982).

30 Lewis, Justin, Constructing Public Opinion: How Political Elites Do What They like and Why We Seem to Go along with It (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

31 Ibid.; Blumer, Herbert, ‘Public opinion and public opinion polling’, American Sociological Review, 13:5 (1948), pp. 542–9.

32 Lipari, Lisbeth, ‘Toward a discourse approach to polling’, Discourse Studies, 2:2 (2000), pp. 187215.

33 Zaller, John and Feldman, Stanley, ‘A simple theory of the survey response: Answering questions versus revealing preferences’, American Journal of Political Science, 36:3 (1992), pp. 579616.

34 Ibid., p. 580.

35 Ibid., p. 585; Bishop, George F., Oldendick, Robert W., and Tuchfarber, Alfred, ‘What must my interest in politics be if I just told you “I don't know”?’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 48:2 (1984), pp. 510–19.

36 Druckman, James N., ‘On the limits of framing effects: Who can frame?’, The Journal of Politics, 63:4 (2001), pp. 1041–66.

37 Kinder, Donald R. and Sanders, Lynn M., ‘Mimicking political debate with survey questions: the case of white opinion on affirmative action for blacks’, Social Cognition, 8:1 (1990), pp. 73103.

38 Baum, Matthew A. and Potter, Philip B. K., ‘The relationships between mass media, public opinion, and foreign policy: Toward a theoretical synthesis’, Annual Review of Political Science, 11:1 (2008), pp. 3965.

39 Lipari, ‘Toward a discourse approach to polling’, p. 210.

40 Lewis, Constructing Public Opinion.

41 Edwards, George C. and Swenson, Tami, ‘Who rallies? The anatomy of a rally event’, The Journal of Politics, 59:1 (1997), pp. 200–12.

42 Cook, Fay Lomax, Tyler, Tom R, Goetz, Edward G., Gordon, Margaret T., Protess, David, Leff, Donna R., and Molotch, Harvey L., ‘Media and agenda setting: Effects on the public, interest group leaders, policy makers, and policy’, The Public Opinion Quarterly, 47:1 (1983), pp. 1635.

43 Holsti, Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy.

44 Kreps, ‘Flying under the radar’.

45 Risse, Thomas, ‘“Lets argue!”: Communicative action in world politics’, World Politics, 54:1 (2000), pp. 139.

46 Kreps, ‘Flying under the radar’.

47 Tannenwald, Nina, ‘The nuclear taboo: the United States and the normative basis of nuclear non-use’, International Organization, 53:3 (1999), pp. 433–68.

48 Risse, ‘“Lets argue!”’; Hurd, Ian, How to Do Things with International Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

49 Price, Richard, ‘Reversing the gun sights: Transnational civil society targets landmines’, International Organization, 52:3 (1998), pp. 613–44.

50 Joachim, Jutta, Agenda-setting, the UN and NGOs: Gender Violence and Reproductive Rights (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2007).

51 Carpenter, Charli, ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Vetting in Global Issue Networks and the Making of Human Security (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).

52 Hurd, How to Do Things with International Law; Hurd, Ian, ‘Is humanitarian intervention legal?: the rule of law in an incoherent world’, Ethics & International Affairs, 325:3 (2011), pp. 291313. On norm evasion, see Buzas, Zoltan, ‘Is the good news about law compliance good news about norm compliance?’, International Organization, 72:2 (2018), pp. 351–85; On norm decline, see also McKeown, Ryder, ‘Norm regress: US revisionism and the slow death of the torture norm’, International Relations, 23:1 (2009), pp. 525.

53 Cooley, Deibert, and Merloe, ‘Authoritarianism goes global’.

54 Jose, Betcy, ‘Not completely the new normal: How Human Rights Watch tried to suppress the targeted killing norm’, Contemporary Security Policy, 38:2 (2017), pp. 237–59.

55 Carpenter, ‘Lost’ Causes.

56 Simmons, Mobilizing for Human Rights; Finnemore and Sikkink, ‘International norm dynamics and political change’; Keck and Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders.

57 Brassil, Denielle, ‘Increasing compliance with international law through dissemination’, University of Western Australia Law Review, 39:1 (2015), pp. 83109.

58 Acharya, Amitav, ‘How ideas spread: Whose norms matter? Norm localization and institutional change in Asian regionalism’, International Organization, 58:2 (2004), pp. 239275; Finnemore and Sikkink, ‘International norm dynamics and political change’.

59 Shannon, Vaughn P., ‘Norms are what states make of them: the political psychology of norm violation’, International Studies Quarterly, 44:2 (2000), pp. 293316.

60 Nadelmann, Ethan A., ‘Global prohibition regimes: the evolution of norms in international society’, International Organization, 44:4 (2009), pp. 479526.

61 Sandholtz, Wayne and Stiles, Kendall W., International Norms and Cycles of Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

62 On social facts, see Ruggie, John G., ‘What makes the world hang together?: Neo-utilitarianism and the social constructivist challenge’, International Organization, 52:4 (1998), pp. 855–85.

63 Nadelmann, ‘Global prohibition regimes’.

64 Conrad, Courtenay R., Croco, Sara E., Gomez, Brad T. and Moore, Will H., ‘Threat perception and American support for torture’, Political Behavior, 40 (2017), pp. 9891009.

65 Buzas, ‘The good news about law compliance’.

66 Kreps, ‘Flying under the radar’; Micah Zenko, ‘U.S. public opinion on drone strikes’, Council on Foreign Relations (18 March 2013).

67 Charmaz, Kathy, Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide Through Qualitative Analysis (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2006).

68 Our annotated dataset is available as an NVivo file, and the raw data is available for replication as an .xls file.

69 To count as ‘explaining’ the law, questions needed to include a baseline description of what a given treaty states, or a simple description of the law's content, such as this example pulled from our dataset: ‘The US (United States) and most countries in the world have signed a number of conventions – that is, treaties that create international laws – that prohibit certain methods for trying to get information from detainees.’

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.’

71 United Nations General Assembly, ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ (1948), Article 1.

72 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1987), Article 1.1.

73 Department of Defense Military Commission Order No. 1 (21 March 2002).

74 McCoy, Alfred W., Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012), p. 4.

75 Rosso, Jared Del, Talking about Torture: How Political Discourse Shapes the Debate (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), p. 17.

76 United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, ‘Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program’ (3 December 2014), p. 37.

77 Memorandum for Alberto Gonzales, ‘RE: Standards of Conduct for Interrogation under 18 U.S.C. sections 2340-2340A’, White House Office of Legal Council (1 August 2002), p. 1.

78 Ibid., pp. 14, 15, 22.

79 Notably, even if a detained individual does not receive prisoner of war status, he or she is still protected by the IHL prohibition on torture, ‘beginning from the time of their capture to their release and repatriation’. See Okimoto, Keiichiro, ‘The protection of detainees in international law’, in Perrigo, Sarah and Whitman, Jim (eds), The Geneva Conventions under Assault (London: Pluto Press, 2010), p. 129.

80 US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (2014).

81 Ibid., p. 3.

82 Chris Khan, ‘Exclusive: Most Americans support torture against terror suspects – Reuters/Ipsos poll’, Reuters (30 March 2016); Jesse Byrnes, ‘Poll: Most Americans support torture’, The Hill (30 March 2016).

83 Gronke, Paul, Rejali, Darius, Drenguis, Dustion, Hicks, James, Miller, Peter, and Nakayama, Bryan, ‘U.S. public opinion on torture, 2001–2009’, Political Science & Politics, 43:3 (2010), pp. 437–44.

84 Danzig, David, ‘Countering the Jack Bauer effect’, in Flynn, Michael and Salek, Fabiola Fernandez (eds), Screening Torture: Media Representations of State Terror and Political Domination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), pp. 2134.

85 Ibid., p. 21.

86 Musgrave, Paul and Furman, Daniel, ‘Synthetic experiences: How popular culture matters for images of international relations’, International Studies Quarterly, 61:3 (2017), pp. 503–16.

87 Adam Goldman and Peyton Craighill, ‘New poll finds majority of Americans think torture was justified after 9/11 attacks’, The Washington Post (16 December 2014); Christopher Ingraham, ‘Let's not kid ourselves: Most Americans are fine with torture, even when you call it “torture”’, The Washington Post (9 December 2014).

88 Chris Kahn, ‘Exclusive: Most Americans support torture against terror suspect’, Reuters (30 March 2016).

89 Brittany Lyte, ‘Americans have grown more supportive of torture’, FiveThirtyEight (9 December 2014).

90 United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (1976), Articles 4 and 6.

91 Hurd, How to Do Things with International Law.

92 In international human rights law, killing must not be arbitrary. See UN ICCPR (1976), Article 6.1. Human rights law does allow the killing rather than capture of criminal suspects in rare situations where an individual poses an imminent threat to others’ lives and peaceable means of suppression are not feasible. Such an ‘imminent threat’ cannot however be based upon past crimes or behavioural profiling.

93 Common Article 3 to the Four Geneva Conventions extends protection to all captured persons in non-international conflicts.

94 Dan De Luce and Paul McCleary, ‘Obama's most dangerous drone tactic is here to stay’, Foreign Policy (5 April 2016); Jo Becker and Scott Shane, ‘Secret “kill list” tests Obama's principles’, New York Times (29 May 2012).

95 US Department of Justice White Paper, ‘Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qa'ida or An Associated Force’ (8 November 2011).

96 Ibid., p. 16.

97 Kenneth Roth, ‘Letter to Obama on targeted killings and drones’, Human Rights Watch (7 December 2010).

98 United Nations Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, ‘Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy’ (2006).

99 Phillip Alston, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Rep. A/HRC/14/24/Add.6’, United Nations Human Rights Council (28 May 2010).

100 Amnesty International USA, ‘Killing Outside the Bounds of Law?’ (2016).

101 Human Rights Watch, ‘Joint Letter to President Obama on US Drone Strikes and Targeted Killings’ (11 April 2013).

102 Kreps, ‘Flying under the radar’; Zenko, ‘U.S. public opinion on drone strikes’.

103 Kreps, ‘Flying under the radar’.

104 Walsh, ‘Precision weapons’.

105 Baumeister, Roy F., Bratslavsky, Ellen, Finkenauer, Catrin, and Vohs, Kathleen D, ‘Bad is stronger than good’, Review of General Psychology, 5:4 (2001), pp. 323–70.

106 Kreps, ‘Flying under the radar’.

107 John Sides, ‘Most Americans approve of foreign drone strikes’, The Washington Post (10 March 2013).

108 Chris Cillizza, ‘The American public loves drones’, The Washington Post (6 February 2016). Kreps wrote a response to Cillizza: Sarah Kreps, ‘Do Americans really love drone strikes?’,The Washington Post (6 June 2014).

109 Ken Dilanian and Emily Swanson, ‘Americans approve of drone strikes on terrorists, poll finds’, PBS News Hour (1 May 2015). Interestingly, the content of this news story actually mentioned that this poll doesn't include mention of civilian casualties, and cited Kreps.

110 Wilson Dizard, ‘Poll finds strong support for drone strikes among Americans’, Al Jazeera America (28 May 2015).

111 Lydia Wheeler, ‘Majority of Americans support US drone strikes, survey says’, The Hill (28 May 2015).

112 Kreps, ‘Flying under the radar’, p. 3.

113 Price, ‘Reversing the gun sights’; Thomas, Ward, ‘Norms and security: the case of international assassination’, International Security, 25:1 (2006), pp. 105–33.

114 This theoretical position stands in contrast to more realist contentions, which would argue that change in attitudes towards international norms stems primarily from strategic factors rather than more subtle processes of social construction.

115 For example, Miller et al. (2014) find that responses to surveys are conditioned heavily by expectations of how others think on an issue – expectations often influenced by media reporting of earlier survey results with headlines such as ‘Americans Love Drones!’. Miller, Peter, Gronke, Paul, and Rejali, Darius, ‘Torture and public ppinion: the partisan dimension’, in Lightcap, Tracy and Pfiffner, Jame (eds), Examining Torture: Empirical Studies of State Repression (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), pp. 1142.

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.

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