Public Opinion and Human Rights

What are the public’s perceptions of human rights and what role does public opinion play in shaping states’ human rights policies at home and abroad?  I have a series of collaborative projects that aim to answer these questions. The first, which is outlined below, examines the role of public opinion in generating support for humanitarian intervention.  The second is a set of papers, co-authored with Dona-Gene Barton and Sergio Wals (both of the University of Nebraska) on the relationship between public perceptions, democracy and security in Mexico.  

The Domestic Politics of Humanitarian Intervention: Public Opinion, Partisanship and Ideology

Abstract: The debate around humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect generally concerns a collective action problem on the international level: motivating states to participate in a multilateral coalition to stop a mass atrocity. This debate presupposes that states enjoy a domestic consensus about their rights and responsibilities to intervene. This article reconsiders this assumption and examines the sources of domestic political will for intervention, particularly the role of partisanship, ideology, and public opinion on Congressional members’ willingness to support US intervention for humanitarian purposes. We analyze several Congressional votes relevant to four episodes of US humanitarian intervention: Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. We find that public support for humanitarian intervention increases Congressional support and that other political demands, primarily partisanship and ideological distance from the president, often trump the normative exigencies of intervention. Our findings shed light on the domestic political dynamics behind humanitarian intervention and can help explain why some recent humanitarian missions have proceeded without seeking Congressional approval.

Suggested Citation: Hildebrandt, Timothy, Courtney Hillebrecht, Peter M. Holm, and Jon Pevehouse. 2013. “The Domestic Politics of Humanitarian Intervention: Public Opinion, Partisanship, and Ideology.” Foreign Policy Analysis 9(3): 243–66.

We also published an Op-Ed on public opinion and humanitarian intervention on

Perceived Human Rights and Support for New Democracies: Lessons from Mexico

Abstract: Political elites in emerging democracies are likely to promise improvements on human rights. From an empirical perspective, however, emerging democracies tend to perform rather poorly in this domain. Given this tension between elite rhetoric and performance, it is important to examine the extent to which citizens in emerging democracies evaluate democracy and new democratic leaders’ performance on the bases of their perceptions of respect for human rights. This topic remains largely unexplored and conventional wisdom suggests that economic satisfaction, not human rights concerns, drives individuals’ support for democracy. We aim to fill this gap in the literature by investigating the extent to which specific and diffuse political support is related to individuals’ perceptions of respect for human rights in the context of an emerging democracy. Taking advantage of two representative survey data sets from Mexico from 2003 and 2010, our empirical findings suggest that citizens are more likely to support their president, their government and democratization when they believe that human rights are respected. By examining the relationship between democracy and human rights protections at the individual level, our research is a pioneering effort to better explain the interaction between the prospects of democratic consolidation and perceptions of human rights.

Suggested Citation: Hillebrecht, Courtney, Dona-Gene Mitchell, and Sergio C. Wals. 2015. “Perceived Human Rights and Support for New Democracies: Lessons from Mexico.” Democratization 22(7): 1230–49.

A Neglected Nexus: Human Rights and Public Perceptions

Abstract: Although human rights scholars have extensively focused on the origins of human rights, research is underdeveloped that attends to the origins of public perceptions of human rights. We expand our knowledge of state-level and individual-level determinants of human rights perceptions. Unlike prior work that ignores within-country variation, we take advantage of state-level variation within Mexico to explore the extent to which human rights perceptions are influenced by context. Specifically, we examine whether the public’s human rights perceptions are influenced by violence levels and human rights organizational activities at the state level. Additionally, we assess whether the public’s human rights perceptions are related to trust in domestic institutions and security forces and whether sharing partisan ties with the current administration is a contributing factor. Finally, we assess how education levels moderate human rights perceptions. Our results show that human rights perceptions are linked to both state-level and individual-level factors.

Suggested Citation: Barton, Dona-Gene, Courtney Hillebrecht, and Sergio C. Wals. “A Neglected Nexus:  Human Rights and Public Perceptions.” Journal of Human Rights 16(3).