Can Shaming Promote Human Rights?

Publicity in Human Rights Foreign Policy

Eu For Human Rights  Can Shaming Promote Human Rights  Kinzelbach Lehmann

Source: European External Action Service /​Flickr

14 Dec 2015, 
published in
European Liberal Forum

Executive Summary

NGOs and states alike can publicly criticize repressive governments. Such shaming” serves to attract attention to actions perceived as wrongful. Shaming seeks to increase the costs for offenders and thus acts as a deterrence mechanism. In the international political arena, it needs an audience to function; therefore, by definition, it is public. Shaming can work as a megaphone to build up pressure from above” and below.” It can also serve as one of several mechanisms of human rights change, including dialogue, deliberation, capacity building, persuasion, incentives and coercion. 

There is robust academic evidence that shaming can have a positive impact on the human rights situation in targeted states. Both qualitative and quantitative research points out that the success of shaming hinges on the health of the domestic opposition, but that shaming by international actors is also an important remedy against deadlock when the space for domestic opposition shrinks. When domestic actors coordinate with international actors, shaming is most effective. Shaming works for economically weak and strong states alike, suggesting that most states care about their reputation rather than only about the immediate economic effects. 

Human rights shaming carries risks. Shaming can backfire when shamed states develop effective counter-frames that challenge the legitimacy of criticism, such as by pointing to neocolonial interference. Governments may strategically make concessions out of concern for human rights, only to clamp down on other rights. Shaming may also have detrimental economic side effects, though there is no academic evidence of such effects being long-term.

Academic findings on the effectiveness of human rights shaming are largely echoed in the experiences of practitioners in liberal political foundations, as indicated by a perception survey on shaming that was kindly distributed for the purposes of this study by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) through its country offices. Respondents answered in a personal capacity and on an anonymous basis. Because of the snowball sampling approach, the survey results do not provide conclusive evidence. Nevertheless, they indicate that staff members of liberal political foundations and their NGO partners expect the effect of domestic criticism to increase if an individual European Union member state echoes that criticism. More important is shaming by multiple EU governments, particularly by governments of bigger EU member states. In follow-up interviews, respondents stated that local actors are mostly better suited to shame, unless there is no space for them to do so. Likewise, they stressed the need to complement shaming with other measures, such as incentives and coercion, and deplored the lack of EU coordination. 

A small sample of shaming practice in the EU indeed raises the question of to what extent shaming by the EU and member states is consistent. EU member states regularly coordinate on human rights issues in the human rights working group of the council of the EU. However, with some exceptions (i.e., joint shaming in response to prominent individual cases), shaming practice appears to be erratic. 

What is the best way towards a more consistent practice? While academic research on the effectiveness of shaming can inform policy, there are limits to this. Because the effectiveness of shaming is highly context-specific, there cannot be a universal protocol for when – and when not – to shame. Authoritarian states seek to remain unpredictable. Given such uncertainty, predictions about the effectiveness of shaming are important but cannot be the only consideration that determines when to shame. Ultimately, at least keeping the human rights discourse alive and on the international agenda can be a legitimate consideration for whether to shame. 

Against this background, the present study proposes a principled pragmatism” informed by research. Such an approach needs strategic, coordinated action. Effective shaming requires clear strategizing about the vulnerability and potential counter-discourses of the targeted state, as well as the alliances that need to be built. It also necessitates closely coordinating with local actors and, where possible, synchronizing the actions of international actors more so than what seems to be the case today. The EU has great potential for such coordination and synchronization, but it should not seek to centralize human rights criticism. Because EU actors in Brussels are not perceived as being as powerful as the member states on issues of foreign policy, they should encourage and support member states to shame in a coordinated manner. Without a concerted effort across all European capitals, perpetrating states can easily dismiss human rights criticism as a concern of a Brussels apparatus that is out of touch with the member states, and opponents of more-consistent shaming can point to the EU’s responsibility in order to justify their own inaction.

The full report is available for download.