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Making Sense of Human Rights Diplomacy: Evidence from a US Campaign to Free Political Prisoners

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 November 2021

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Scholarship on human rights diplomacy (HRD)—efforts by government officials to engage publicly and privately with their foreign counterparts—often focuses on actions taken to “name and shame” target countries because private diplomatic activities are unobservable. To understand how HRD works in practice, we explore a campaign coordinated by the US government to free twenty female political prisoners. We compare release rates of the featured women to two comparable groups: a longer list of women considered by the State Department for the campaign; and other women imprisoned simultaneously in countries targeted by the campaign. Both approaches suggest that the campaign was highly effective. We consider two possible mechanisms through which expressive public HRD works: by imposing reputational costs and by mobilizing foreign actors. However, in-depth interviews with US officials and an analysis of media coverage find little evidence of these mechanisms. Instead, we argue that public pressure resolved deadlock within the foreign policy bureaucracy, enabling private diplomacy and specific inducements to secure the release of political prisoners. Entrepreneurial bureaucrats leveraged the spotlight on human rights abuses to overcome competing equities that prevent government-led coercive diplomacy on these issues. Our research highlights the importance of understanding the intersection of public and private diplomacy before drawing inferences about the effectiveness of HRD.

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Copyright © The IO Foundation 2021

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