Rational Choice Explanations for Human Rights Treaties

by Roger Alford

Let me just offer a quick additional reflection on the question of whether rational choice theory may help explain the conundrum of why states sign human rights treaties.

The easiest explanation is when the human rights commitment is bundled together with other provisions in a treaty, and the cost of making the human rights commitment is offset by other benefits derived from the treaty. The Helsinki Accords are the obvious example, with the USSR receiving significant benefits from provisions such as the territorial integrity of States, while committing itself to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The rational choice explanation is obvious within the confines of the treaty itself.

Most human rights treaties are not of this nature. As for free-standing human rights treaties, a rational choice assumption would be that the cost of adhering to a human rights treaty must be offset by some greater good external to the treaty. Two possibilities come to mind, one international and the other domestic. In some cases, a country may wish to sign a human rights treaty to procure some greater international benefit. For example, the choice of some eastern European countries to sign the European Convention on Human Rights can be explained by their desire to secure admission to the European Union. And of course, foreign aid is often conditioned on adherence to human rights treaties. It is quite rational for developing countries to make human rights commitments for the sake procuring foreign aid.

In other cases the benefit may have nothing to do with international relations. If I understand Andrew correctly from his last post, he assumes that the internalization of a norm is a departure from rational choice assumptions. I’m not sure this is correct. I would think that a state could make the rational choice to suffer the cost of adhering to a human rights treaty in order to secure a domestic benefit. The 1965 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination is a good example. CEDR was pushed through the General Assembly by a majority bloc of newly-independent developing countries from Africa and Asia. But there is a rational choice explanation for why the United States quickly came on board: the international cost of adherence was offset by a domestic benefit. The Johnson Administration was under intense domestic pressure from the civil rights movement to show progress on racial equality, and adherence to an international treaty was one such clear signal.

Rational choice explanations of international law cannot divorce international costs from domestic benefits. All that matters is that there is some rational explanation for why states make international commitments. The explanation may be of a horizontal nature between nations, or of a vertical nature within the state itself.


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