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Moravcsik: The origins of human rights regimes

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Moravcsik. 2000. The origins of human rights regimes. International Organization 54 (spring): 217-252.

Y: Establishment of the European Court of Human Rights (and other human rights regimes)

X: Domestic political concerns of newly established democracies.

MAIN IDEA: International human rights regimes constrain state sovereignty. According to realist theory, states should only accept such constraints if a more powerful actor coerces them (which isn't the case). According to ideational (constructivist) theories, states should only accept such constraints if those in government adopt new norms (which wasn't the case with ECHR--established democracies actually sided with dicators against the ECHR).

  • According to Moravcsik, both approaches miss the mark; international human rights regimes arise as a response by newly established democracies to domestic political concerns. Recognizing that non-democratic foes might later gain power, early leaders in a new democracy seek to "lock in" their policy preferences (liberal republicanism) by committing their state (via treaty) to respect human rights, subject to autonomous adjudication by the ECHR.
  • Established democracies, suspicious of yielding sovereignty to the regime, accept only optional or rhetorical commitments at first; dictatorships oppose the regimes.
  • Moravcsik calls this a "republican liberal" theory because of its emphasis on domestic (liberal republican) democracy.

THREE GENERAL IMPLICATIONS of the argument about the emergence of ECHR:

  1. Expect to see support for international human rights regimes coming from new democracies, with suspicion from established democracies and hostility from dictatorships.
  2. Look for other effects of domestic democracy on international politics. "Distinct to republican liberal theory is the decisive role of domestic political representation in world politics and, by extension, the possibility that international institutions, like their domestic counterparts, can enhance the credibility of domestic political commitments, thereby 'locking in' current policies." We might expect to see democracies cede sovereignty when there is domestic political uncertainty (as in this theory), when foreign governments support the incumbent's policies, or when international cooperation helps the incumbent convince domestic actors to support current policies. Moravcsik briefly applies these ideas to explain NAFTA, the Warsaw Pact and Comintern, etc.
  3. We must realist that the realism/idealism debate is not a dichotomy. The mere fact that realism fails to explain something well does not mean constructivist accounts are the only alternative. We must also consider the role of domestic politics. Moravcsik's study shows that "What seems at first to be a conversion to moral altruism is in fact an instrumental calculation of how best to lock in democratic governance against future opponents--a practice hardly distinct from similar practices in the most pecuniary areas of world politics, such as trade and monetary policy. I am not denying, of course, that ideas and ideals matter in foreign policy; I am challenging only a particular idealist argument."


Page 222 has a nice summary of the literature in a clear table. Implication (3) makes this article's place in the literature clear.


Explaining that new democracies support human rights regimes doesn't explain why established democracies eventually join them. Why do they shift from initial suspicion (even hostility) to accession? Moravcsik concedes on 246 that the variables explaining the origin of ECHR can't explain its evolution, though there is no reason to believe his assertion that "the determinants of the evolution of human rights regimes are unlikely to be identical to the determinants of their founding." Why not? Are there not variables that explain both the origin and the evolution of human rights regimes?