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The Language of Compromise in International Agreements

47 Pages Posted: 14 Jul 2014 Last revised: 15 Apr 2016

Katerina Linos

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law

Tom Pegram

University College London

Date Written: June 7, 2014


To reach agreement, international negotiators often compromise by introducing flexibility in language: they make controversial provisions vague, or add options and caveats. Does flexibility in agreement language influence subsequent state behavior? If so, do states follow both firm and flexible language somewhat, as negotiators hope? Or do governments respond strategically, increasing their energies on firmly specified tasks, and reducing their efforts on flexibly specified ones? Testing claims about agreement language is challenging, because states often reserve flexible language for controversial provisions. To make causal claims, we study an unusually drafted agreement, in which states had almost no opportunity to water down controversial provisions. We examine the influence of the 1991 Paris Principles on the Design of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), using an original dataset of 22 institutional safeguards of NHRIs in 107 countries, and case studies. We find that variations in agreement language can have large effects on state behavior, even when the entire agreement is non-binding. Both democracies and authoritarian states followed the Principles’ firm terms closely. However, authoritarian states either ignored or reduced their efforts on flexibly specified tasks. If flexibly specifying a task is no different from omitting it altogether, as our data suggest, the costs of compromise are much larger than previously believed.

Keywords: International agreements, law, institutional design, human rights

Suggested Citation

Linos, Katerina and Pegram, Tom, The Language of Compromise in International Agreements (June 7, 2014). Available at SSRN:

Katerina Linos

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law ( email )

488 Boalt Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States

Tom Pegram (Contact Author)

University College London ( email )

29/30 Tavistock Square
London, WC1H 9QU
United Kingdom
442031089291 (Phone)


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