Legalization and Leverage: Human Rights Conditionality in the European Union’s Economic Agreements
40 Pages Posted: 16 Jul 2012 Last revised: 12 Nov 2015
Date Written: 2012
Can economic agreements reduce repression? The European Union (EU) has been at the forefront of global efforts to link trade and aid benefits to respect for human rights. Since 1995, it has included a binding human rights clause in every newly-negotiated economic agreement with third countries. But do these commitments make a difference? I argue that human rights clauses do increase the likelihood that rights violations will be punished, but the cost of punishment varies substantially across countries depending on the degree of economic leverage held by the EU. In a comprehensive analysis of the EU’s international agreements, aid disbursements, and trade relations in 120 developing countries, I find that human rights clauses are, in fact, conditionally effective: they are associated with modest improvements in political freedom and physical integrity rights, but only in countries that are heavily dependent on EU aid and trade. In contrast, alternative explanations — namely, that the effect of human rights commitments depends on their degree of legalization, or on domestic political conditions — are not supported by the evidence. By illuminating the relationship between economic leverage and political conditionality, this study sheds light on the conditions under which normative commitments have an impact, and identifies a specific path through which aid and trade can reduce repression.
Keywords: conditionality, European Union, foreign aid, trade, human rights
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