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The Origins of Human Rights Regimes: Democratic Delegation in Postwar Europe

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 July 2003

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Most formal international human rights regimes establish international committees and courts that hold governments accountable to their own citizens for purely internal activities. Why would governments establish arrangements so invasive of domestic sovereignty? Two views dominate the literature. “Realist” theories assert that the most powerful democracies coerce or entice weaker countries to accept norms; “ideational” theories maintain that transnational processes of diffusion and persuasion socialize less-democratic governments to accept norms. Drawing on theories of rational delegation, I propose and test a third “republican liberal” view: Governments delegate self-interestedly to combat future threats to domestic democratic governance. Thus it is not mature and powerful democracies, but new and less-established democracies that will most strongly favor mandatory and enforceable human rights obligations. I test this proposition in the case of the European Convention on Human Rights—the most successful system of formal international human rights guarantees in the world today. The historical record of its founding—national positions, negotiating tactics, and confidential deliberations—confirms the republican liberal explanation. My claim that governments will sacrifice sovereignty to international regimes in order to dampen domestic political uncertainty and “lock in” more credible policies is then generalized theoretically and applied to other human rights regimes, coordination of conservative reaction, and international trade and monetary policy.

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Copyright © The IO Foundation 2000

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