The Influence of International Human Rights Agreements on Public Opinion: An Experimental Study

Author: 
Adam Chilton

Scholars have long speculated that commitments to human rights agreements are unlikely to have an effect on domestic policy because they do not contain a threat of external enforcement. Recent research has challenged that belief by suggesting that ratification of human rights agreements leads democracies to change their policies because international commitments change public support for reform. Although considerable progress has been made, the empirical research in support of that theory has not directly tested the primary causal mechanisms speculated to produce policy changes. Experimental methods present a promising way to do exactly that. To leverage that fact, I have embedded an experiment within a survey in the first effort to explore whether information on the status of international law changes public opinion on a purely domestic human rights issue: the practice of subjecting prisoners to solitary confinement. The results show that, although generic appeals to human rights do not influence public opinion, references to prior treaty commitments do. In other words, the results demonstrate the plausibility of theories of compliance with human rights agreements that are based on the idea that international obligations alter the political climate within democracies.