The Cost of Shame: International Organizations and Foreign Aid in the Punishing of Human Rights Violators

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Original Publication Date

January 1, 2009


James H. Lebovic, Erik Voeten


Journal of Peace Research


Are violators of international human rights norms punished with lower levels of foreign aid? Despite their abstract preferences, governments often lack the incentive to punish norm violators bilaterally. Multilateral lending institutions, such as the World Bank, could fill the void if they wanted to consider human rights abuses and could bypass restrictions on evaluating the political character of recipients. This article argues that `shaming' in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, through resolutions that explicitly criticized governments for their human rights records, provided substantive information about rights abuses and gave political cover for the World Bank and other liberal multilateral aid institutions seeking to sanction human rights violators. Statistical analyses support these theoretical claims. The adoption of a UNCHR resolution condemning a country's human rights record produced a sizeable reduction in multilateral, and especially World Bank, aid but had no effect on the country's aggregate bilateral aid receipts. The analyses also support predictions that `objective' measures of human rights have no independent effect on multilateral aid allocations. The findings, which are robust to different model techniques and specifications, suggest that punishment for violating international human rights norms is selective, that international organizations play an important role in the selection process and, thus, that seemingly symbolic resolutions of a politically motivated IO can carry tangible consequences.