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The international community often seeks to promote political reforms in recalcitrant states. Recently, some scholars have argued that, rather than helping, international law and advocacy create new problems because they have negative spillovers that increase rights violations. We review three mechanisms for such spillovers: backlash, trade-offs, and counteraction and concentrate on the last of these. Some researchers assert that governments sometimes “counteract” international human rights pressures by strategically substituting violations in adjacent areas that are either not targeted or are harder to monitor. However, most such research shows only that both outcomes correlate with an intervention—the targeted positively and the spillover negatively. The burden of proof, however, should be as rigorous as those for studies of first-order policy consequences. We show that these correlations by themselves are insufficient to demonstrate counteraction outside of the narrow case where the intervention is assumed to have no direct effect on the spillover, a situation akin to having a valid instrumental variable design. We revisit two prominent findings and show that the evidence for the counteraction claim is weak in both cases. The article contributes methodologically to the study of negative spillovers in general by proposing mediation and sensitivity analysis within an instrumental variables framework for assessing such arguments. It revisits important prior findings that claim negative consequences to human rights law and/or advocacy, and raises critical normative questions regarding how we empirically evaluate hypotheses about causal mechanisms.


Human rights; international law; international relations; counteraction; spillover effects; backlash; causal inference; sensitivity analysis; instrumental variables

Publication Title

International Organization

Publication Citation

75:1 Int’l Org. 71 (Winter 2021).