The effects of international human rights soft law

Katerina Linos and I have just finished putting the final touches to our paper ‘The Language of Compromise in International Agreements’ and we’re excited about its journal publication shortly. We hope it will make a significant contribution to debates surrounding international law, organizations and human rights. Using an original dataset from the 1991 Paris Principles on the Design of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) in addition to several sources of qualitative evidence, we find that the degree of flexibility in soft law agreement language influences state behaviour.

Interestingly, states had little opportunity to “water down” the terms of the Paris agreement, yet both democracies and authoritarian states have complied with the firmly stated provisions. The findings offer a counterpoint to the (overly) pessimistic view of many legal realists who see international law as toothless legal mechanisms that distract from meaningful discussions of what it actually takes to change state behaviour. However, importantly, we also identify a risk. It appears that states have responded strategically to the Paris Principles, redirecting their efforts toward tasks that were specified in firm, precise, unconditional language and away from the more vague and open-ended tasks. In a recent intervention responding to our findings, Professor Matthew Stephenson of Harvard Law School offers an insightful comparison between the Paris Principles and International Principles for Anti-corruption Agencies.

Is it better to have standards articulated in an international agreement or not? We look forward to developing this line of inquiry in collaboration with colleagues.

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