By: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr. 20150106

The dissemination of human rights norms has a conflicted impact on state and/or individual behavior. Human rights norms are situated between a history of gross human rights violations perpetrated by state/individual actors who enjoyed impunity, and a current landscape, where both have been prosecuted. Although such prosecutions deliver promise to those seeking evidence that respect for human rights has improved, not only do opposing anecdotes exist, such analysis tends to produce unseeded correlations.

In cognitive-behavioral and rational choice theoretical terms, I argue it would be better to view legal enforcement mechanisms such as treaties, human rights regimes, courts, and prosecutions as cognitive enablers in the formation of an actor’s schemata. That is, the thought I may stand before the courts if I commit human rights violations, is but one of other organized thought patterns influencing the decision making process. To remove the existence of courts and prosecutions, for instance, would remove the possibility of a lack of impunity involved in the decision making process, and would be similar to removing the round from the chamber when playing Russian Roulette. The mere existence of these objects proves risk is involved.

Nevertheless, the commission of human rights violations as a tool to achieve objectives lie in a larger tool box where additional options may outweigh the former. That is, additional tools may include behavior not deemed illegal, yet considered more effective in achieving the objective. Therefore, the choice to not commit human rights violations by a state or individual actor may be predicated on the question of efficacy, not legality. Emily Hafner-Burton demonstrated how the question of efficacy trumped the fear of prosecution during the decision making process in an article titled Naming and Shaming in which she concluded,

“…governments subjected to global publicity efforts often behave in contradictory ways, reducing some violations of political rights afterward—sometimes because these violations are easier or less costly to temper yet some governments continue or expand their use of political terror—sometimes because terror is less in governments’ control or can be used to cancel out other improvements governments make but do not want to work” (2008, 713).

I expand my theory further, a sort of methodological individualism, where states/individuals are self-seeking and rational actors and when given the option to choose the most effective amongst two choices, will simply choose the most effective or self-enhancing option. For example, an individual considering bank robbery may decide contrarily after considering the potential for death by wreck after fleeing the scene. Then, may prefer another tool (legal or illegal) to achieve the objective of economic gain. Economically speaking, the Global Compact, serves as another superb example of self-seeking actors voluntarily willing to cooperate around human rights principles; but when pressed for more binding commitments, resist strongly. As Nina Seppala stated, “The proposed enforcement procedures have been one of the reasons why many companies took a stance against the Norms” (2009, 411). This strongly suggests that their freedom to commit human rights violations is perceived as a more effective tool to achieve their economic objectives, than submitting to human rights standards with high probabilities for enforcement. As skewed as it may sound, properly diagnosed, it is a perception of a freedom to commit human rights violations worth fighting for.

Again, the schematic tendency to embrace human rights violations as an effective choice is anchored in its value as an effective tool. Criminals do not always avoid the commission of a crime out of fear of prosecution. Therefore, the proliferation of human rights norms can impact the behavior of state and individual actors only to the extent that enlightened self-interest is schematically capable of conceptualizing the availability of more effective options than violating the rights of humans.  When it is no longer effective to utilize human rights violations to achieve political or economic goals, the actor will most likely refrain from such commission irrespective of legality. Nevertheless, the schematic tendency to do so, is strengthened by a synergistic reliance on the proliferation of enforcement mechanisms that allow additional options to be perceived as effectively competitive with the commission of human rights violations.


Public shame campaigns are engineered by some to discourage human rights violations. They are engineered by others to encourage public support for war campaigns. That is, public support can be manipulated to achieve the political and economic objectives of state leaders.

Dianna Johnstone argued,

“The sole purpose of R2P is to create a public opinion willing to accept U.S. and NATO intervention in other countries. It is not meant to allow the Russians or the Chinese, say, to intervene to protect housemaids in Saudi Arabia from being beheaded — much less to allow Cuban forces to shut down Guantanamo and end U.S. violations of human rights (on Cuban territory).

Intervention means war; war causes massacres and more wars. The sense of being threatened by U.S. power incites other countries to build up their own military defenses and to repress opposition militants who might serve as excuses for outside intervention.

Today, the greatest threat to the peoples of the world is not “evil dictators,” but the militarization of international relations which, unless reversed, is leading toward the unimaginable catastrophe of World War III” (2013).

The U.N., media, and NGOs need to be careful when confidently highlighting the human rights violations occurring throughout the world. How can these institutions and organizations, along with the global civil society, prevent the inequitable distribution of public support for interventions, or, prevent fostering comparative advantages for certain state leaders through disproportional authorizations?

Johnstone puts up a great argument regarding the obsession with genocide as a means of relativizing war. Essentially, she is arguing the psychological value of the historical reality of the human rights violations leading up to the Nuremberg trials, has been commoditized by the U.S. “military-industrial complex” and a “foreign-policy elite” as a means to justify wars of aggression that would not otherwise be supported (2013).


Hafner-Burton, Emilie M. 2008. “Sticks and Stones: Naming and Shaming the Human Rights Enforcement Problem.” International Organization 62, no. 4: 689-716. Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed January 5, 2016).

Johnstone, Diana. Responsibility to Protect is a Power Play. January 25, 2013.

Seppala, Nina. 2009. “Business and the International Human Rights Regime: A Comparison of UN Initiatives.” Journal of Business Ethics 87, 401-417. Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed January 5, 2016).


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