A Social Science of Human Rights

Journal of Peace Research, 2014, Vol. 51(2) 273-286

Posted: 2 May 2014 Last revised: 15 Aug 2019

Date Written: 2014


Why do governments abuse human rights, and what can be done to deter and reverse abusive practices? This article examines the emerging social science on these two questions. Over the last few decades, scholars have made considerable progress in answering the first one. Abuse stems, centrally, from conflict and institutions. Answers to the second question are more elusive because data are scarce and the relationships between cause and effect are hard to pin down. Lively debates concern the effectiveness of tools such as military intervention, economic policy, international law, and information strategies for protecting human rights. The evidence suggests that despite the explosion of international legal instruments, this strategy has had impact only in special circumstances. Powerful states play central roles in protecting human rights through sanctions, impartial military intervention, and other tools – often applied unilaterally, which suggests that there is an ongoing tension between the legitimacy of broad multilateral legal institutions and narrower strategies that actually work. The best approaches to managing human rights depend on the political organization of the abuser. Where strong centralized organizations are the problem, the best strategies alter the incentives of leaders at the top; where abuse arises from disarray, such as during civil war or fragile democratic transition, the key tasks include reducing agency slack and making organizations stronger and more accountable.

Keywords: Human Rights, Conflict, Military Intervention, International Law, NGOs, Compliance, Democratization

Suggested Citation

Hafner-Burton, Emilie Marie, A Social Science of Human Rights (2014). Journal of Peace Research, 2014, Vol. 51(2) 273-286. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2431501

Emilie Marie Hafner-Burton (Contact Author)

UCSD School of Global Policy and Strategy ( email )

9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, CA 92093-0519
United States

HOME PAGE: http://gps.ucsd.edu/ehafner/

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