Agents of Recalcitrance: Governmental Decentralization and State Compliance with International Human Rights Treaties
Previous research has analyzed a range of domestic stakeholders that make national governments’ commitments to international human rights treaties credible, including independent judiciary, legislative veto players, political opposition groups, and non-governmental organizations. But how does the power dynamics within the government affect state compliance with human rights treaties? In this study, I focus on the effect of the central-local governmental structure. My focus on the central-local governmental relations builds on the basic understanding that international human rights norms need to pass through domestic political and administrative processes before they can be implemented on the ground. I argue that a decentralized state in which local authorities enjoy more discretion in local matters is less likely to comply with human rights treaties because decentralization (1) hinders the top-down diffusion of human rights norms between different governmental tiers, (2) creates a great number of local agents that are not subject to pressure from the international society, and (3) enables the central government to deflect international criticism by shifting blame for human rights abuses to local officials. To test my theoretical expectation, I use a mixed methods approach to analyze variation at both the national and subnational levels. I first conduct cross-national analyses of the impact of governmental decentralization on state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations Convention Against Torture. I then use qualitative and quantitative methods to conduct subnational analyses of China and US compliance with international human rights treaties. Complementary streams of quantitative and qualitative evidence from cross-national and within-country analyses suggest that higher levels of decentralization reduce state compliance with international human rights treaties. A practical implication of my research is that failing to hold local authorities accountable creates a mismatch between promoting political accountability and advancing human rights.