Skip to main content

International Courts as Agents of Legal Change: Evidence from LGBT Rights in Europe

  • Laurence R. Helfer (a1) and Erik Voeten (a2)
  • Please note a correction has been issued for this article.

Do international court judgments influence the behavior of actors other than the parties to a dispute? Are international courts agents of policy change or do their judgments merely reflect evolving social and political trends? We develop a theory that specifies the conditions under which international courts can use their interpretive discretion to have system-wide effects. We examine the theory in the context of European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) rulings on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues by creating a new data set that matches these rulings with laws in all Council of Europe (CoE) member states. We also collect data on LGBT policies unaffected by ECtHR judgments to control for the confounding effect of evolving trends in national policies. We find that ECtHR judgments against one country substantially increase the probability of national-level policy change across Europe. The marginal effects of the judgments are especially high where public acceptance of sexual minorities is low, but where national courts can rely on ECtHR precedents to invalidate domestic laws or where the government in power is not ideologically opposed to LGBT equality. We conclude by exploring the implications of our findings for other international courts.

Hide All
Adamczyk, Amy, and Pitt, Cassady. 2009. Shaping Attitudes About Homosexuality: The Role of Religion and Cultural Context. Social Science Research 38 (2):338–51.
Alter, Karen J. 2009. The European Court's Political Power: Selected Essays. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Alter, Karen J., and Helfer, Laurence R.. 2010. Nature or Nurture: Judicial Lawmaking in the European Court of Justice and the Andean Tribunal of Justice. International Organization 64 (4):563–92.
Alter, Karen J., and Meunier-Aitsahalia, Sophie. 1994. Judicial Politics in the European Community: European Integration and the Pathbreaking Cassis de Dijon Decision. Comparative Political Studies 26 (4):535–61.
Anagnostou, Dia, and Psychogiopoulou, Evangelia, eds. 2010. The European Court of Human Rights and the Rights of Marginalised Individuals and Minorities in National Context. Leiden, the Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV.
Beck, Nathaniel, and Katz, Jonathan N.. 2007. Random Coefficient Models and Time-Series–Cross-Section Data: Monte Carlo Experiments. Political Analysis 15 (2):182–95.
Behan, Cormac, and O'Donnell, Ian. 2008. Prisoners, Politics and the Polls: Enfranchisement and the Burden of Responsibility. British Journal of Criminology 48 (3):319–36.
Besson, Samantha. 2011. The Erga Omnes Effect of Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights—What's in a Name? In The European Court of Human Rights After Protocol 14: First Assessment and Perspectives, edited by Besson, Samantha, 125–75. Geneva: Schulthess.
Binder, Christina, 2011. The Prohibition of Amnesties by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. German Law Journal 12 (5):1203–30.
Blackburn, Robert, and Polakiewicz, Jörg, eds. 2001. Fundamental Rights in Europe: The European Convention on Human Rights and Its Member States, 1950–2000. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Bob, Clifford. 2012. The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brewster, Rachel. 2009. Unpacking the State's Reputation. Harvard International Law Journal 50 (2):231–69.
Burley, Anne-Marie, and Mattli, Walter. 1993. Europe Before the Court: A Political Theory of Legal Integration. International Organization 47 (1):4176.
Busch, Marc L. 2007. Overlapping Institutions, Forum Shopping, and Dispute Settlement in International Trade. International Organization 61 (4):735–61.
Carter, David, and Signorino, Curtis. 2010. Back to the Future: Modeling Time Dependence in Binary Data. Political Analysis 18 (3):271–92.
Cichowski, Rachel A. 2007. The European Court and Civil Society: Litigation, Mobilization and Governance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. 2010. Strengthening Subsidiarity—Integrating the Court's Case-Law into National Law and Judicial Practice. Skopje, Macedonia, 1–2 October.
Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. 1993a. Honouring of Commitments Entered into by New Member States. Order No. 488, 29 June. Available at ⟨⟩. Accessed 12 August 2013.
Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. 1993b. Report on the Application by Romania for Membership of the Council of Europe. Doc. 6901, 19 July. Available at ⟨⟩. Accessed 23 October 2012.
Dai, Xinyuan. 2005. Why Comply? The Domestic Constituency Mechanism. International Organization 59 (2):363–98.
Downs, George W., and Jones, Michael A.. 2002. Reputation, Compliance, and International Law. Journal of Legal Studies 31 (S1):S95S114.
Downs, George, Rocke, David M., and Barsoom, Peter N.. 1996. Is the Good News About Compliance Good News About Cooperation? International Organization 50 (3):379406.
European Commission. 2012. Eurobarometer 66.1 (September–October 2006). TNS Opinion and Social, Brussels, Belgium. GESIS Data Archive, Cologne, Germany. ZA4526 Data File Version 1.0.1.
European Values Study. 2011. European Values Study 1981–2008, Longitudinal Data File. GESIS Data Archive, Cologne, Germany. ZA4804 Data File Version 2.0.0. Available at ⟨⟩. Accessed 12 August 2013.
Gärditz, Klaus Ferdinand. 2007. International Decisions: Case Nos. 2 BvR 2115/01, 2 BvR 2132/01, & 2 BvR 348/03. American Journal of International Law 101 (3):627–35.
Ginsburg, Tom. 2005. Bounded Discretion in International Judicial Lawmaking. Virginia Journal of International Law 45 (3):631–73.
Ginsburg, Tom, and Versteeg, Mila. 2013. Why Do Countries Adopt Constitutional Review? Journal of Law, Economics and Organization. Published electronically 23 July. doi:10.1093/jleo/ewt008.
Guzman, Andrew T. 2008. How International Law Works: A Rational Choice Theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Hafner-Burton, Emilie M., and Tsutsui, Kiyoteru. 2007. Justice Lost! The Failure of International Human Rights Law to Matter Where Needed Most. Journal of Peace Research 44 (4):407–25.
Hawkins, Darren, and Jacoby, Wade. 2010. Partial Compliance: A Comparison of the European and Inter-American Courts for Human Rights. Journal of International Law and International Relations 6 (1):3585.
Helfer, Laurence R. 1993. Consensus, Coherence and the European Convention on Human Rights. Cornell International Law Journal 26 (1):133–65.
Helfer, Laurence R. 2008. Redesigning the European Court of Human Rights: Embeddedness as a Deep Structural Principle of the European Human Rights Regime. European Journal of International Law 19 (1):125–59.
Helfer, Laurence R., Alter, Karen J., and Guerzovich, M. Florencia. 2009. Islands of Effective International Adjudication: Constructing an Intellectual Property Rule of Law in the Andean Community. American Journal of International Law 103 (1):147.
Hillebrecht, Courtney. 2012. Implementing International Human Rights Law at Home: Domestic Politics and the European Court of Human Rights. Human Rights Review 13 (3):279301.
Holzhacker, Ronald. 1999. Labor Unions and Sexual Diversity in Germany. In Laboring for Rights: Unions and Sexual Diversity Across Nations, edited by Hunt, Gerald, 238–52. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Howse, Robert L., and Teitel, Ruti. 2010. Beyond Compliance: Rethinking Why International Law Really Matters. Global Policy 1 (2):127–36.
Huneeus, Alexandra. 2011. Courts Resisting Courts: Lessons from the Inter-American Court's Struggle to Enforce Human Rights. Cornell International Law Journal 44 (3):493533.
Inglehart, Robert, and Baker, Wayne E.. 2000. Modernization, Cultural Change, and the Persistence of Traditional Values. American Sociological Review 65 (1):1951.
ISSP Research Group. 2011. International Social Survey Programme: Religion, 1991, 1998, 2008. GESIS Data Archive, Cologne, Germany. ZA5070 Data File Version 1.0.0.
Johnson, Paul. 2012. Homosexuality and the European Court of Human Rights. New York: Routledge.
Kanargelidis, Jeffrey. 2005. New Anti-Dumping Rules Applied by Canada—The “Zeroing” Debate. Mondaq Business Briefing, 7 September. Available at ⟨⟩. Accessed 9 July 2012.
Keller, Helen, and Stone Sweet, Alec. 2008. A Europe of Rights: The Impact of the ECHR on National Legal Systems. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Kelley, Judith G. 2004. International Actors on the Domestic Scene: Membership Conditionality and Socialization by International Institutions. International Organization 58 (3):425–57.
Khosla, Madhav. 2011. Inclusive Constitutional Comparison: Reflections on India's Sodomy Decision. American Journal of Comparative Law 59 (4):909–34.
Klarman, Michael. 2012. From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Kochenov, Dimitry. 2007. Democracy and Human Rights—Not for Gay People?: EU Eastern Enlargement and Its Impact on the Protection of the Rights of Sexual Minorities. Texas Wesleyan Law Review 13 (2):459–95.
Kumm, Mattias, and Comella, Ferreres. 2005. The Primacy Clause of the Constitutional Treaty and the Future of Constitutional Conflict in the European Union. International Journal of Constitutional Law 3 (2-3):473–92.
Lax, Jeffrey R., and Philips, Justin H.. 2009. Gay Rights in the States: Public Opinion and Policy Responsiveness. American Political Science Review 103 (3):367–86.
Lee, David S. 2008. Randomized Experiments from Non-Random Selection in US House Elections. Journal of Econometrics 142 (2):675–97.
Maduro, Miguel. 1998. We, the Court: The European Court of Justice and the European Economic Constitution. Oxford, UK: Hart Publishing.
Martin, Lisa. 2012. Against Compliance. In Interdisciplinary Perspectives on International Law and International Relations: The State of the Art, edited by Dunoff, Jeffrey and Pollack, Mark, 591610. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Meisner, Anja. 2001. Minderheiten in den Streitkräften: Homosexuelle in der Bundeswehr. Munich, Germany: GRIN Publishing.
Moravcsik, Andrew. 2000. The Origins of International Human Rights Regimes: Democratic Delegation in Postwar Europe. International Organization 54 (2):217–52.
Naurath, Nicole. 2007. Perceived Acceptance of Homosexuals Differs around Globe. Gallup, 1 November. Available at ⟨⟩. Accessed 15 May 2012.
Open Society Institute. 2012. LGBTI Rights in Eastern Europe: Between Hope and Despair, 19 July. Available at ⟨⟩. Accessed 5 October 2012.
Popelier, Patricia, Van de Heyning, Catherine, and Van Nuffel, Piet, eds. 2011. Human Rights Protection in the European Legal Order: The Interaction Between the European and the National Courts. Cambridge, UK: Intersentia.
Shahabuddeen, Mohammed. 2007. Precedent in the World Court. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Simmons, Beth. 2009. Mobilizing for Human Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Slaughter, Anne-Marie. 1994. A Typology of Transjudicial Communication. University of Richmond Law Review. 29:99138.
Slaughter, Anne-Marie. 2003. A Global Community of Courts. Harvard International Law Journal. 44:191220.
Staton, Jeffrey K., and Moore, Will H.. 2011. Judicial Power in Domestic and International Politics. International Organization 65 (3):533–87.
Steinberg, Richard H. 2004. Judicial Lawmaking at the WTO: Discursive, Constitutional, and Political Constraints. American Journal of International Law 98 (2):247–75.
Tomz, Michael. 2008. Reputation and the Effect of International Law on Preferences and Beliefs. Working Paper. Stanford, CA: Stanford University. Available at ⟨⟩. Accessed 2 July 2012.
Voeten, Erik. 2007. The Politics of International Judicial Appointments: Evidence from the European Court of Human Rights. International Organization 61 (4):669701.
Voeten, Erik. 2008. The Impartiality of International Judges: Evidence from the European Court of Human Rights. American Political Science Review 102 (4):417–33.
Waaldijk, Kees. 2001. Towards the Recognition of Same-Sex Partners in European Union Law: Expectations Based on Trends in National Law. In Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Partnerships: A Study of National, European and International Law, edited by Wintemute, Robert and Andenaes, Mads, 635–51. Oxford, UK: Hart Publishing.
Waaldijk, Kees. 2009. Legal Recognition of Homosexual Orientation in the Countries of the World: A Chronological Overview with Footnotes. Paper presented at the International Lesbian and Gay Law Association's conference, The Global Arc of Justice—Sexual Orientation Law Around the World, March, Los Angeles, CA.
White, Robin C.A., and Ovey, Clare. 2010. Jacobs, White, and Ovey: The European Convention on Human Rights, 5th ed. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Wildhaber, Luzius. 2000. Precedent in the European Court of Human Rights. In Protection des droits de l'homme: la perspective européenne, mélanges à la mémoire de Rolv Ryssdal, edited by Mahoney, Paul, Matscher, Franz, Petzold, Herbert, and Wildhaber, Luzius, 1529–45. Cologne, Germany: Carl Heymanns.
Wintemute, Robert. 1997. Sexual Orientation and Human Rights: The United States Constitution, the European Convention, and the Canadian Charter. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
World Bank. 2012. World Development Indicators. Washington, DC: World Bank. Available at ⟨⟩. Accessed 11 November 2012.
YouGov. 2011. Sunday Times Survey Results, 10–11 February. Available at ⟨⟩. Accessed 4 May 2012.
Zaller, John R. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Organization
  • ISSN: 0020-8183
  • EISSN: 1531-5088
  • URL: /core/journals/international-organization
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 53
Total number of PDF views: 508 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 2233 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 25th March 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

A correction has been issued for this article: