Skip to main content Accessibility help

Mind the Gap: State Capacity and the Implementation of Human Rights Treaties

  • Wade M. Cole


According to recent studies, international human rights treaties are ineffective, counterproductive, or else beneficial for only those countries that tend to respect human rights regardless of treaty membership. Analysts often attribute gaps between human rights principles and practices to willful disobedience, self-interested defection, and ineffective enforcement. Using two-stage regression models to analyze compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, I examine whether countries' inability (as opposed to unwillingness) to implement treaty terms is also responsible for the gap between commitment and compliance. I find that one dimension of state capacity in particular—bureaucratic efficacy—enhances levels of compliance with civil, political, and physical integrity rights provisions. These findings lend credence to an important aspect of the managerial approach—that noncompliance is often inadvertent and conditioned by a state's ability to implement treaty terms.



Hide All
Abouharb, M. Rodwan, and Cingranelli, David L.. 2007. Human Rights and Structural Adjustment. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Adams, Renée, Almeida, Heitor, and Ferreira, Daniel. 2009. Understanding the Relationship Between Founder-CEOs and Firm Performance. Journal of Empirical Finance 16 (1):136–50.
Albertus, Michael, and Menaldo, Victor. 2012. Coercive Capacity and the Prospects for Democratization. Comparative Politics 44 (2):151–69.
Alston, Philip, and Quinn, Gerard. 1987. The Nature and Scope of States Parties' Obligations Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Human Rights Quarterly 9 (2):156229.
Amnesty International 2012. Police Violence in Greece: Not Just “Isolated Incidents.” London: Amnesty International.
Angrist, Joshua D., and Pischke, Jörn-Steffen. 2009. Mostly Harmless Econometrics: An Empiricist's Companion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Banks, Arthur S., and Wilson, Kenneth A.. 2013. Cross-National Time-Series Data Archive. Jerusalem, Israel: Databanks International. Available at <>. Accessed 28 February 2008.
Beck, Nathaniel, Katz, Jonathan N., and Tucker, Richard. 1998. Taking Time Seriously: Time-Series–Cross-Section Analysis with a Binary Dependent Variable. American Journal of Political Science 42 (4):1260–88.
Beck, Thorsten, Clarke, George, Groff, Alberto, Keefer, Philip, and Walsh, Patrick. 2001. New Tools in Comparative Political Economy: The Database of Political Institutions. World Bank Economic Review 15 (1):165–76.
Blanton, Robert G., and Blanton, Shannon Lindsey. 2009. Virtuous or Vicious Cycle? Human Rights, Trade, and Development. In North and South in the World Political Economy, edited by Reuveny, Rafael, and Thompson, William R., 91103. New York: Blackwell.
Blanton, Shannon Lindsey. 1999. The Transfer of Arms and the Diffusion of Democracy: Do Arms Promote or Undermine the “Third Wave”? Social Science Journal 36 (3):413–29.
Butler, Christopher K., Gluch, Tali, and Mitchell, Neil. 2007. Security Forces and Sexual Violence: A Cross-National Analysis of the Principal-Agent Argument. Journal of Peace Research 44 (6):669–87.
Carey, Sabine C., Mitchell, Neil J., and Lowe, Will. 2013. States, the Security Sector, and the Monopoly of Violence: A New Database on Pro-government Militias. Journal of Peace Research 50 (2):249–58.
Chayes, Abram, and Chayes, Antonia Handler. 1993. On Compliance. International Organization 47 (2):175205.
Cingranelli, David, and Richards, David. 1999. Respect for Human Rights After the End of the Cold War. Journal of Peace Research 36 (5):511–34.
Cingranelli, David, and Richards, David. 2010. The Cingranelli and Richards (CIRI) Human Rights Data Project. Human Rights Quarterly 32 (2):401–24.
Cingranelli, David, Richards, David, and Clay, K. Chad. 2014. The Cingranelli-Richards (CIRI) Human Rights Data Project Coding Manual. Available at <>. Accessed 22 May 2014.
Clark, Rob. 2010. Technical and Institutional States: Loose Coupling in the Human Rights Sector of the World Polity. Sociological Quarterly 51 (1):6595.
Cole, Wade M. 2005. Sovereignty Relinquished? Explaining Commitment to the International Human Rights Covenants, 1966–1999. American Sociological Review 70 (3):472–95.
Cole, Wade M. 2012a. Human Rights as Myth and Ceremony? Reevaluating the Effectiveness of Human Rights Treaties, 1981–2007. American Journal of Sociology 117 (4):1131–71.
Cole, Wade M. 2012b. A Civil Religion for World Society: The Direct and Diffuse Effects of Human Rights Treaties, 1981–2007. Sociological Forum 27 (4):937–60.
Cole, Wade M. 2012c. Institutionalizing Shame: The Effect of Human Rights Committee Rulings on Abuse, 1981–2007. Social Science Research 41 (3):539–54.
Cole, Wade M., and Ramirez, Francisco O.. 2013. Conditional Decoupling: Assessing the Impact of National Human Rights Institutions, 1981 to 2004. American Sociological Review 78 (4):702–25.
Conrad, Courtenay Ryals, and Moore, Will H.. 2010. What Stops the Torture? American Journal of Political Science 54 (2):459–76.
Correlates of War Project. 2010. National Material Capabilities. Version 3.02. Available at <>. Accessed 8 April 2011.
Cutright, Phillips. 1963. National Political Development: Measurement and Analysis. American Sociological Review 28 (2):253–64.
Davenport, Christian. 2007. State Repression and the Tyrannical Peace. Journal of Peace Research 44 (4):485504.
de Soysa, Indra, Jackson, Thomas, and Ormhaug, Christin M.. 2010. Tools of the Torturer? Small Arms Imports and Repression of Human Rights, 1992–2004. International Journal of Human Rights 14 (3):378–93.
Donnelly, Jack. 2003. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Downs, George W., Rocke, David M., and Barsoom, Peter N.. 1996. Is the Good News About Compliance Good News About Cooperation? International Organization 50 (3):379406.
Dreher, Axel, Gassebnerand, Martin, and Siemers, Lars H.R.. 2007. Does Terror Threaten Human Rights? Evidence from Panel Data. KOF Working Paper 07-156. Zurich, Switzerland: KOF Swiss Economic Institute, ETH Zurich.
Drori, Gili S., Jang, Suk Yong, and Meyer, John W.. 2006. Sources of Rationalized Governance: Cross-National Longitudinal Analyses, 1985–2002. Administrative Science Quarterly 51 (2):205–29.
Dudai, Ron, and McEvoy, Kieran. 2012. Thinking Critically About Armed Groups and Human Rights. Journal of Human Rights Practice 4 (1):129.
Easterly, William R. 2001. Global Development Network Growth Database. Washington, DC: World Bank.
Englehart, Neil. 2009. State Capacity, State Failure, and Human Rights. Journal of Peace Research 46 (2):163–80.
Escribà-Folch, Abel. 2012. Authoritarian Responses to Foreign Pressure: Spending, Repression, and Sanctions. Comparative Political Studies 45 (6):683713.
Evans, Peter, and Rauch, James. 1999. Bureaucracy and Growth: A Cross-National Analysis of the Effects of “Weberian” State Structures on Economic Growth. American Sociological Review 64 (5):748–65.
Fearon, James, and Laitin, David. 2003. Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War. American Political Science Review 97 (1):7590.
Fortin-Rittberger, Jessica. 2014. The Role of Infrastructural and Coercive State Capacity in Explaining Different Types of Electoral Fraud. Democratization 21 (1):95117.
Goldsmith, Jack L., and Posner, Eric A.. 2005. The Limits of International Law. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Hafner-Burton, Emilie M. 2005. Trading Human Rights: How Preferential Trade Agreements Influence Government Repression. International Organization 59 (3):593629.
Hafner-Burton, Emilie M. 2008. Sticks and Stones: Naming and Shaming the Human Rights Enforcement Problem. International Organization 62 (4):689716.
Hafner-Burton, Emilie M. 2009. Forced to Be Good: Why Trade Agreements Boost Human Rights. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Hafner-Burton, Emilie M., Helfer, Laurence R., and Fariss, Christopher J.. 2011. Emergency and Escape: Explaining Derogations from Human Rights Treaties. International Organization 65 (4):673707.
Hafner-Burton, Emilie M., and Tsutsui, Kiyoteru. 2005. Human Rights in a Globalizing World: The Paradox of Empty Promises. American Journal of Sociology 110 (5):1373–411.
Hafner-Burton, Emilie M., and Tsutsui, Kiyoteru. 2007. Justice Lost! The Failure of International Human Rights Law to Matter Where Needed Most. Journal of Peach Research 44 (4):407–25.
Hafner-Burton, Emilie, Tsutsui, Kiyoteru, and Meyer, John W.. 2008. International Human Rights Law and the Politics of Legitimation: Repressive States and Human Rights Treaties. International Sociology 23 (1):115–41.
Harrelson-Stephens, Julie, and Callaway, Rhonda. 2003. Does Trade Openness Promote Security Rights in Developing Countries? Examining the Liberal Perspective. International Interactions 29 (2):143–58.
Hathaway, Oona A. 2002. Do Human Rights Treaties Make a Difference? Yale Law Journal 111 (8):19352042.
Hathaway, Oona A. 2003. The Cost of Commitment. Stanford Law Review 55 (5):1821–62.
Hathaway, Oona A. 2007. Why Do Countries Commit to Human Rights Treaties? Journal of Conflict Resolution 51 (4):588621.
Hawkins, Darren G., and Goodliffe, Jay. 2006. Explaining Commitment: States and the Convention Against Torture. Journal of Politics 68 (2):358–71.
Hechter, Michael. 2000. Containing Nationalism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Helfer, Laurence R., and Slaughter, Anne-Marie. 1997. Toward a Theory of Effective Supranational Adjudication. Yale Law Journal 107:273391.
Henderson, Conway W. 1991. Conditions Affecting the Use of Political Repression. Journal of Conflict Resolution 35 (1):120–42.
Henderson, Conway W. 1993. Population Pressures and Political Repression. Social Science Quarterly 74 (2):322–33.
Herbst, Jeffrey. 2000. States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hill, Daniel W. Jr. 2010. Estimating the Effects of Human Rights Treaties on State Behavior. Journal of Politics 72 (4):1161–74.
Hobbes, Thomas. 1988 [1651]. Leviathan. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Hollyer, James, and Rosendorff, B. Peter. 2011. Why Do Authoritarian Regimes Sign the Convention Against Torture? Signaling, Domestic Politics, and Non-Compliance. Quarterly Journal of Political Science 6 (3–4):275327.
Hollyer, James, and Rosendorff, B. Peter. 2012. Do Human Rights Agreements Prolong the Tenure of Autocratic Ratifiers? Journal of International Law and Politics 44 (3):791811.
Howell, Llewellyn D. 2011. ICRG Methodology. Syracuse, NY: PRS Group. Available at <>. Accessed 22 May 2014.
Keck, Margaret, and Sikkink, Kathryn. 1998. Activists Beyond Borders: Transnational Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Keith, Linda Camp. 1999. The United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: Does It Make a Difference in Human Rights Behavior? Journal of Peace Research 36 (1):95118.
Keith, Linda Camp. 2002. Constitutional Provisions for Individual Human Rights (1976–1996): Are They More Than Mere “Window Dressing?” Political Research Quarterly 55 (1):111–43.
Kentor, Jeffrey, Jorgenson, Andrew K., and Kick, Edward. 2012. The “New” Military and Income Inequality: A Cross National Analysis. Social Science Research 41 (3):514–26.
Koh, Harold. 1997. Why Do Nations Obey International Law? Yale Law Journal 106 (8):2599–659.
Landman, Todd. 2005. Protecting Human Rights: A Comparative Study. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Lebovic, James H., and Voeten, Erik. 2006. The Politics of Shame: The Condemnation of Country Human Rights Practices in the UNCHR. International Studies Quarterly 50 (4):861–88.
Lebovic, James H., and Voeten, Erik. 2009. The Cost of Shame: International Organizations and Foreign Aid in the Punishing of Human Rights Violators. Journal of Peace Research 46 (1):7997.
Lutz, Ellen L., and Sikkink, Kathryn. 2000. International Human Rights Law and Practice in Latin America. International Organization 54 (3):633–59.
Mann, Michael. 1984. The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results. European Journal of Sociology 25 (2):185213.
Marshall, Monty G., Ted Robert, Gurr, and Jaggers, Keith. 2012. Polity IV Project: Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions, 1800–2012. Dataset Users' Manual. Center for Systemic Peace. College Park: University of Maryland. Available at <>. Accessed 22 May 2014.
Marshall, T.H. 1992 [1950]. Citizenship and Social Class. London: Pluto Press.
Mechlem, Kerstin. 2009. Treaty Bodies and the Interpretation of Human Rights. Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 42:905–47.
Melander, Erik. 2005. Political Gender Equality and State Human Rights Abuse. Journal of Peace Research 42 (2):149–66.
Mitchell, Neil J. 2004. Agents of Atrocity: Leaders, Followers, and Human Rights Violations in Civil Wars. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mitchell, Neil J., and McCormick, James M.. 1988. Economic and Political Explanations of Human Rights Violations. World Politics 40 (4):476–98.
Andrew, Moravcsik. 2000. The Origins of Human Rights Regimes: Democratic Delegation in Postwar Europe. International Organization 54 (2):217–52.
Murdie, Amanda, and Davis, David R.. 2010. Problematic Potential: The Human Rights Consequences of Peacekeeping Interventions in Civil Wars. Human Rights Quarterly 32 (1):4972.
Neumayer, Eric. 2005. Do International Human Rights Treaties Improve Respect for Human Rights? Journal of Conflict Resolution 49 (6):925–53.
Neumayer, Eric. 2013. Do Governments Mean Business When They Derogate? Human Rights Violations During Notified States of Emergency. Review of International Organizations 8 (1):131.
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 2007. Good Governance Practices for the Protection of Human Rights. New York: United Nations.
Peksen, Dursun. 2009. Better or Worse? The Effect of Economic Sanctions on Human Rights. Journal of Peace Research 46 (1):5977.
Peksen, Dursun. 2012. Does Foreign Military Intervention Help Human Rights? Political Research Quarterly 65 (3):558–71.
Perkins, Richard, and Neumayer, Eric. 2007. Implementing Multilateral Environmental Agreements: An Analysis of EU Directives. Global Environmental Politics 7 (3):1341.
Poe, Steven C., and Tate, C. Neal. 1994. Repression of Human Rights to Personal Integrity in the 1980s: A Global Analysis. American Political Science Review 88 (4):853–72.
Poe, Steven C., Tate, C. Neal, and Keith, Linda Camp. 1999. Repression of Human Rights to Personal Integrity Revisited: A Global Cross-National Study Covering the Years 1976–1993. International Studies Quarterly 43 (2):291313.
Political Risk Services Group. 2008. Researcher's Dataset (ICRG Table 3B). Syracuse, NY: PRS Group. Available at <>. Accessed 3 February 2011.
Powell, Emilia Justyna, and Staton, Jeffrey K.. 2009. Domestic Judicial Institutions and Human Rights Treaty Violation. International Studies Quarterly 53 (1):149–74.
Ramos, Howard, Ron, James, and Thoms, Oskar N.T.. 2007. Shaping the Northern Media's Human Rights Coverage, 1986–2000. Journal of Peace Research 44 (4):385406.
Richards, David L., Gelleny, Ronald D., and Sacko, David H.. 2001. Money with a Mean Streak? Foreign Economic Penetration and Government Respect for Human Rights in Developing Countries. International Studies Quarterly 45 (2):219–39.
Risse, Thomas, Ropp, Stephen C., and Sikkink, Kathryn, eds. 1999. The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Ron, James, Ramos, Howard, and Rodgers, Kathleen. 2005. Transnational Information Politics: NGO Human Rights Reporting, 1986–2000. International Studies Quarterly 49 (3):557–88.
Sarkees, Meredith Reed, and Schafer, Phil. 2000. The Correlates of War Data on War: An Update to 1997. Conflict Management and Peace Science 18 (1):123–44.
Shue, Henry. 1980. Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and US Foreign Policy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Simmons, Beth. 2008. International Law and International Relations. In The Oxford Handbook of Law and Politics, edited by Whittington, Keith E., Kelemen, R. Daniel, and Caldeira, Gregory A., 187208. New York: Oxford University Press.
Simmons, Beth. 2009. Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law and Domestic Enforcement. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Simmons, Beth A., and Hopkins, Daniel J.. 2005. The Constraining Power of International Treaties: Theory and Methods. American Political Science Review 99 (4):623–31.
Skocpol, Theda. 1985. Bringing the State Back in: Strategies of Analysis in Current Research. In Bringing the State Back In, edited by Evans, Peter B., Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, and Skocpol, Theda, 337. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Slaughter, Anne-Marie. 1995. International Law in a World of Liberal States. European Journal of International Law 6 (1):503–38.
Smith-Cannoy, Heather. 2012. Insincere Commitments: Human Rights Treaties, Abusive States, and Citizen Activism. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Soysal, Yasemin Nuhoğlu. 1994. Limits of Citizenship: Migrants and Postnational Membership in Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Stock, James H., and Yogo, Motohiro. 2005. Testing for Weak Instruments in Linear IV Regression. In Identification and Inference for Econometric Models, edited by Andrews, Donald W.K., and Stock, James H., 80108. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Strayer, Joseph. 2005 [1970]. On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Tallberg, Jonas. 2002. Paths to Compliance: Enforcement, Management, and the European Union. International Organization 56 (3):609–43.
Tilly, Charles. 2007. Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Turner, Bryan S. 2006. Vulnerability and Human Rights. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.
Vadlamannati, Krishna Chaitanya, and Pathmalal, K.K. Shakya Lahiru. 2010. Exploring the Relationship Between Military Spending and Human Rights Performance in South Asia. International Journal of Human Rights 14 (2):147–65.
von Stein, Jana. 2005. Do Treaties Constrain or Screen? Selection Bias and Treaty Compliance. American Political Science Review 99 (4):611–22.
Vreeland, James. 2008. Political Institutions and Human Rights: Why Dictatorships Enter into the United Nations Convention Against Torture. International Organization 62 (1):65101.
Wood, Reed M. 2008. “A Hand Upon the Throat of the Nation”: Economic Sanctions and State Repression, 1976–2001. International Studies Quarterly 52 (3)489513.
Wooldridge, Jeffrey M. 2002. Econometric Analysis of Cross Section and Panel Data. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
World Bank. 2008. World Development Indicators. Washington, DC: World Bank.
Young, Joseph. 2009. State Capacity, Democracy, and the Violation of Personal Integrity Rights. Journal of Human Rights 8 (4):283300.
Zanger, Sabine C. 2000. A Global Analysis of the Effect of Political Regime Changes on Life Integrity Violations, 1977–93. Journal of Peace Research 37 (2)213–33.


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed