Thursday, March 21, 2013

Can States Shame Each Other into Good Behaviour?

Interesting new paper by Sandeep Gopalan & Roslyn Fuller, Enforcing International Law: States, IOs, and Courts as Shaming Reference Groups. From the abstract:
We seek to answer the question as to whether international law imposes meaningful constraints on state behaviour. Unabated drone strikes by the dominant superpower in foreign territories, an ineffective United Nations, and persistent disregard for international law obligations suggest that the sceptics have won the debate about whether international law is law and whether it affects state behaviour. We argue that such a conclusion would be in error because it grossly underestimates the complex ways in which IL affects state behaviour. ... We show that IL is enforced by states, courts, and international organizations by the imposition of shame sanctions on offenders and that these sanctions affect state behaviour in the same ways that traditional coercive sanctions do. In doing the above, we also develop the concept of a shaming reference group.
I'm in general a skeptic, viewing the tripartite failures highlighted in this abstract as overwhelming evidence that in the international community, might makes right, full stop. The tenth anniversary of America's unprovoked war on Iraq, which is now clearly characterized as a strategy to gain control over its oil resources that was planned far in advance of 9/11, seems too ample evidence backing the skeptical view. But I'm willing to engage that social pressure might have some amount of impact on state behaviour in some cases. At least, I am willing to believe that states will work hard to appear to be good citizens in the international legal order, and that this might cause some leaders to make decisions differently than they might absent shaming in the international community. But I remain at heart a skeptic so I will continue to believe that in practice states will use any power they have to achieve their ends at the expense of other states (much as leaders will do the same at the expense of their own people if they can get away with it).

This skepticism is reinforced by the part in the paper that talks about how shaming is undertaken and shows that the resources of the "shamer" come to bear in important ways on who and what gets shamed:

States are likely to be the principal enforcers of shame sanctions. ... States make evaluative opinions about other states all the time. Some have the resources to make elaborate justifications and provide evidence for those opinions in a legal manner. One example is the United States State Department’s annual human rights reports. These have come in for harsh criticism as being partisan. ...partisanship is a major problem for shaming. The US has also been accused of hypocrisy. 
Attacks based on the lack of neutrality and credibility to engage in shaming are severely debilitating, and do suggest that neutrality, or a perception thereof, is important if shaming sanctions are to work. This is not to say that shaming by individual states should be ignored altogether. Some states will be persuaded by the US State Department’s reports, and it must ultimately fall to a process of democratic debate to determine if the state being shamed is indeed deserving of punishment. There is nothing stopping Iran and Venezuela from issuing shaming reports of their own. If members of the international community believe these reports are the products of serious investigation and research, they will be credible. On the other hand, if they are merely propaganda, they are likely to be ignored. 
This suggests major cognitive bias problems if shaming is to be a regime for uncovering egregious offenders, at least, if we seek any sort of even-handed regime. If we don't worry about that problem, I think we're back to might makes right, and shaming just becomes another resource for wielding power to act in self-interest, while simultaneously shielding the shamer from reciprocal pressure.

It also suggests the major role of geo-politics in the name and shame game. In a footnote to the above paragraph, the authors highlight a particularly disturbing example:
...William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, remarked on the occasion of the release of the State Department’s annual human rights report: “The content of this report has little correspondence with the administration’s foreign policy; indeed, the U.S. is increasingly guilty of a ‘sincerity gap,’ overlooking abuses by allies and justifying action against foes by post-facto references to human rights. In response, many foreign governments will choose to blunt criticism of their abuses by increasing cooperation with the U.S. war on terror rather than by improving human rights.” 

This is a frightening and ultimately very discouraging status quo. It suggests that when we talk about shaming the result will not necessarily be better behaviour, but rather behaviour aimed at currying the favor of those who decide whom to shame. It worries me if that is the best we can do to guard against states doing terrible things to each other and state leaders dong terrible things to their people.

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