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In recent decades, scholars and activists have argued that international condemnation can improve human rights conditions around the world. “Naming and shaming” is now a preferred tactic of global human rights advocates. When a government violates the rights of its citizens, the international community can respond by exerting moral pressure on that government from the outside.
Think of when Amnesty international asks you to sign a petition on behalf of a political prisoner in China, or the United Nations Human Rights Council issues a resolution on state violence in Syria. These are all examples of shaming in the international sphere: putting an abusive country in the spotlight, condemning violations, urging reform.
Some of the most prolific shamers of human rights abuse are politicians in other countries. For example, Texas Senator Ted Cruz in 2014 introduced a resolution to re-name the street housing the Chinese Embassy in Washington after Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. In response, some in China urged the nation to retaliate by renaming the address of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to “Snowden Street.”
My research challenges the wisdom of such gestures.
In many cases, shaming not only fails to induce compliance but incites a backlash, provoking resistance and worsening human rights practices.
When does shaming lead to an improvement in human rights conditions, and when does it backfire?
To address this question, I take a relational approach to the study of human rights enforcement, in which the strategic interaction between shamer and target generates incentives to comply with, or defy, international pressure to conform with global rights norms.
My key finding is that international shaming is conditioned by the pre-existing geopolitical relationship between source and target. Criticism exchanged between friends and allies is more credible and thus more effective, but also more difficult to mobilize. Shaming aimed at rivals and adversaries, in contrast, is ubiquitous but often backfires by stimulating defiance in the target country. As a result, international shaming is most common in situations where it is least likely to be effective. (In my forthcoming book, I provide evidence for these findings by drawing on large-scale cross-national data, original survey experiments, and a detailed case study of a shaming episode aimed at Iran.)
Shaming never occurs in a vacuum. It always involves a relationship between shamer and target, and both the shamer and target are themselves entangled in a complex web of other social relationships.
The likely consequence of public shaming grows out of the specific nature of these prior relationships. When the targets of “naming and shaming” decide whether to acknowledge or defy those shaming them, they will consider the reactions of others in their web of relationships.
Generally speaking, we tend to shame our rivals, adversaries, and enemies more often, and more harshly, than we do our friends, partners, and allies. Why? Because shaming a rival is less costly—and more rewarding—than shaming a friend. Typically, people only criticize their friends when they hold a strong behavioral preference for the norm they’re enforcing. Even then, they take steps to avoid a negative reaction so as to maintain a valued partnership.
Shaming from rivals or outgroups, on the other hand, is much less costly. But because there is no valued relationship to protect, there are also few incentives to make the shamer happy by complying with their demands. In addition, accusations from adversaries are often seen as less credible—a cynical attempt to sully the target’s reputation. In such cases, the targets of public shame can more safely deny and reject such accusations.
Public shaming is always risky. I might avoid confronting someone I see littering in a park, for example, because I am scared of how he or she would react. These “enforcement costs” are especially salient in international relations. For example, Saudi Arabia, following criticism over the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, threatened to retaliate against the United States economically. Many Muslim nations have remained silent about China’s abuse of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities for fear of possible retribution.
However, such risks may be worth running, given three kinds of potential “shaming benefits.”
First, shamers might benefit from deterring unwanted behavior and reinforcing a preferred norm. For example, because I hate littering, I might risk berating my littering neighbor to get her to stop. However, experience teaches us that such behavioral shaming rarely produces satisfying results. Many Americans publicly condemned the behavior of Donald Trump while he was president, absent any realistic expectation of changing his behavior.
Still, we often choose to shame, not because we think we will modify someone else’s behavior, but because we expect to accrue other social rewards for publicly enforcing norms.
First, we might shame due to “metanorms,” or social pressure to punish violators of shared social norms. More colloquially, think of metanorms as a kind of “virtue signaling.” Individuals bear the costs of shaming in order to signal that they themselves abide by specific shared rules and are thus good, reputable, trustworthy, etc. Metanorms also operate at the international level. Governments shame other governments for human rights violations in order to appease domestic audiences who are genuinely committed to human rights norms.
In addition, shamers may benefit from stigmatizing the target. At its core, shaming is not merely a behavioral nudge, but as Dan Kahan puts it, a “degradation penalty,” meant to “lower the offender’s social status within [a] community.” In the international realm, leaders often denounce human rights violations not because they genuinely care about human rights, but because they want to inflict political damage on foreign adversaries, thus bolstering their own relative power. This kind of “weaponized shaming” is ubiquitous among states as well as individuals.
We now can see why, despite its reputation as an effective tool for advancing emergent social norms like international human rights, shaming is rarely deployed to change a target state’s behavior. Instead, in international relations, actors generally shame in order to boost their own reputation or to stigmatize the target.
As a result, it can be rational for actors to continue shaming even if their efforts fail to change the target’s behavior, and even if they exacerbate human rights violations. Indeed, international actors will sometimes condemn rivals regardless of genuine normative beliefs because doing so provides a strategic advantage. As a result, international actors are liable to shame their rivals in particularly stigmatizing, sensationalist, and inflammatory ways.
We can also now understand why shaming among rivals and enemies so frequently backfires—a perverse dynamic that is especially potent in hyper-polarized environments.
For example, imagine a Trump supporter getting kicked out of a restaurant for wearing a MAGA hat and then boasting about it to his co-partisans, or a liberal democrat publicizing a deprecating tweet she received from a well-known Alt-Right activist. In these cases, out-group stigmatization generates tangible rewards in the form of intragroup status and honor.
In other words, defying public shaming—for instance by doubling-down on violations—can be an effective strategy to generate prestige and legitimacy, regardless of whether the violator genuinely cares about the norm at stake.
A similar dynamic occurs in the international sphere, where foreign pressure often sparks a nationalist reaction in the target state. People typically resent being told what to do, especially by foreign actors, and respond defensively. In light of this reaction, leaders are actually rewarded for standing up to international pressure and defending the nation against perceived domination. In these situations, shaming is not simply ineffective. It is actually counterproductive, because it actually encourages shameless behavior.
One instructive example is the 2009 “anti-homosexuality bill” in Uganda, which in some versions applied capital punishment to offenders. The bill provoked harsh condemnation from foreign governments, especially in the West. Western donor countries even suspended aid in attempt to push the government of President Musaveni to abandon the bill. According to conventional wisdom, the onslaught of foreign shaming, coupled with the threat of aid cuts and other material sanctions, should have worked in the Uganda case.
And yet what we saw was the opposite. The wave of international attention provoked an outraged and defiant reaction among the Ugandan population, turning the bill into a symbol of national sovereignty and self-determination in the face of abusive Western bullying. This reaction energized Ugandan elites to champion the bill in order to reap the political rewards at home. In fact, the bill was the first to pass unanimously in the Ugandan legislature since the end of military rule in 1999.
Museveni—who by all accounts preferred a more moderate solution to the crisis—was backed into a corner. He was later able to prevent the bill from becoming law on a technicality. But by that time, homophobia had become entrenched in Uganda’s national discourse.
Depending on the geopolitical conditions, shaming can produce compliance, defiance, or something in between. Allies are the most effective shamers, but are often reluctant to impose social sanctions. Adversaries are quick to condemn human rights abuses, but often provoke a counterproductive response.
The result is a “politicization paradox”: practices meant to punish human rights violations can operate in such a way as to encourage, reward, and perpetuate them.
Rochelle Terman is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago. She is also a faculty affiliate with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Center for the Study of Gender & Sexuality, the Committee on International Relations, and the Program on Computational Social Science.