Do National Human Rights Institutions Work?



Wade Cole, University of Utah
Francisco Ramirez, Stanford

Date and Time

November 14, 2013 12:00 PM - 1:30 PM



Open to Stanford faculty, students, staff, and visiting scholars.

RSVP required by 5PM November 13.


Reuben W. Hills Conference Room


Do human rights institutions work? To answer this question we examine the effect of these institutions on two kinds of outcomes: physical integrity rights (freedom from torture, government-sponsored killing, political imprisonment, and the like) and civil and political rights (freedoms of speech, assembly, movement, and religion, as well as voting and workers' rights). Our analysis covers up to 143 countries, including some of the world's worst abusers, over the period 1981 to 2004. We arrive at two main conclusions. First, national human rights institutions improve physical integrity outcomes but not civil and political rights practices. This finding reflects a greater worldwide focus on extreme violations such as torture, but also points to widespread resistance among non-Western governments to "Western" civil and political rights standards. Second, we find that time matters: the establishment of a human rights institution contributed initially to greater reports of physical integrity abuses, but practices improved significantly after only four or five years. These institutions shine a bright spotlight on countries negative practices, making it more likely that abuses are detected and cataloged. Over time, however, they help to curb egregious human rights violations. Our findings suggest that human rights institutions are not just futile exercises in governmental hypocrisy; rather, they work to improve human rights practices regardless of the intent of governments.

Speaker bios: 

Francisco Ramirez is Professor of Education and (by courtesy) Sociology at Stanford University where he is also the Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in the Graduate School of Education. His current research interests focus on the rise and institutionalization of human rights and human rights education, on the worldwide rationalization of university structures and processes, on terms of inclusion issues as regards gender and education, and on the scope and intensity of the authority of science in society. His comparative studies contribute to sociology of education, political sociology, sociology of gender, and sociology of development. His work has contributed to the development of the world society perspective in the social sciences. Ramirez received his BA in social sciences from De La Salle University in the Philippines and his MA and PhD in sociology from Stanford University. 

His recent publications include “Conditional Decoupling: Assessing the Impact of National Human Rights Institutions” (with W. Cole) American Sociological Review 702-25 2013; “National Incorporation of Global Human Rights: Worldwide Expansion of National Human Rights Organizations, 1966-2004” (with Jeong-Woo Koo).  Social Forces. 87:1321-1354. 2009; “Human Rights in Social Science Textbooks: Cross-national Analyses, 1975-2008” (with J. Meyer and P. Bromley). Sociology of Education 83: 111-134.  2010; “The Worldwide Spread of Environmental Discourse in Social Science Textbooks, 1970-2010 (with P. Bromley and J. Meyer) Comparative Education Review 55, 4; 517-545. 2011; ‘The Formalization of the University: Rules, Roots, and Routes” (With T. Christensen) Higher Education 65: 695-708 2013; and “The World Society Perspective: Concepts, Assumptions, and Strategies” Comparative Education 423-39 2012.


Wade Cole is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Utah. His current work focuses on (1) the impact of global human rights norms, treaties, and institutions on a range of country-level practices including bodily integrity rights, civil and political rights, labor rights, women’s rights, racial discrimination, measures of wellbeing, and governmental redistributive efforts; and (2) the rise and possible demise of minority-serving and women’s colleges in the United States, with an interest in how the varied and often contradictory ways that African Americans, American Indians, Hispanics, and women were incorporated into the American polity shaped the emergence, development, and purposes of postsecondary institutions catering to these groups. Cole holds a BA in political science from Western Washington University and a PhD in sociology from Stanford University. 

Recent publications include “Conditional Decoupling: Assessing the Impact of National Human Rights Institutions, 1981 to 2004,” American Sociological Review 78(4):702–725 (with Francisco Ramirez); “Strong Walk and Cheap Talk: The Effect of the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights on Policies and Practices,” Social Forces 92(1):165–194; “Government Respect for Gendered Rights: The Effect of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on Women’s Rights Outcomes, 1981–2004,” International Studies Quarterly 57(2):233–249; and “Human Rights as Myth and Ceremony? Reevaluating the Effectiveness of Human Rights Treaties, 1981–2007,” American Journal of Sociology 117(4):1131–1171. He is also author of Uncommon Schools: The Global Rise of Postsecondary Institutions for Indigenous Peoples (Stanford University Press, 2011).

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