Survey Says: If You Want Solitary Confinement Reform, Talk Up Treaty Obligations

by Peter Spiro

Here is a timely piece from Adam Chilton on how treaty obligations may be experienced by the American public. He devised an experiment (using Amazon’s mTurk) to test the effect of a putative treaty violation on public support for reform of solitary confinement practices. The piece comes to us just as congressional hearings have focused policymakers on the issue as a matter (mostly) of domestic law.

The experiment framed comparative questions to control for the value of the treaty commitment itself, as opposed to that of unlegalized human rights norms. A statement that solitary confinement violates unspecified human rights didn’t move the needle at all, where an argument that it “violates human rights treaties that the United States has signed” did, in a statistically significant way. (Chilton carefully notes that “signed” was used to avoid confusion, consistent with the vernacular understanding of treaties.) Respondents were moved not by a sense that treaties should be honored or that violations are immoral but rather that U.S. practice should conform to international standards.

One unexpected finding:

Democrats in the control treatment group supported solitary confinement reform at a 4.45 rate. Information on international law increased support by 0.17 to 4.62, but this increase falls short of conventional levels of significance (p-value = 0.16). Republicans, on the other hand, were less supportive of solitary confinement reform overall—the control treatment group averaged 3.31. Information on international law, however, increased approval to 3.74. This was an increase of 0.43, which was both substantively and statistically significant (p-value = 0.05). This suggests that information on the status of international law on domestic human rights practices, at least with respect to solitary confinement, actually has a greater effect on Republicans than on Democrats.

Seems unlikely, but warrants further investigation. Maybe it plays into a “rule of law” mentality? In any case, the experiment seems well-constructed, so that there’s none of the garbage-in-garbage-out aura that one sometimes butts into as empirical legal studies begins to colonize international law, too.

As Chilton notes, “modest changes in public opinion do not automatically result in changes in public policy,” something of an understatement in the context of US treaty ratification and compliance (cue: the Disabilities Convention). But perhaps studies like this will help nudge policymakers in a more productive, international law-compliant direction.

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