State shaming often ineffective


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Protestors march to the United Nations building during International Human Rights Day in 2012 in New York City. Activists then called for immediate action by the UN and world governments to pressure China to loosen its control over Tibet -- a form of "state shaming," as examined by CISAC fellow Rochelle Terman in her research.
Photo credit: 
Steve Platt/Getty Images

When a state is “shamed” by outsiders for perceived injustices, it often proves counterproductive, resulting in worse behavior and civil rights violations, a Stanford researcher has found.

Rochelle Terman, a political scientist and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), recently spoke about how countries criticized by outsiders on issues like human rights typically respond -- and it's contrary to conventional wisdom. Terman has published findings, “The Relational Politics of Shame: Evidence from the Universal Periodic Review,” on this topic in the Review of International Organizations. She discussed her research in the interview below:

What does your research show about state "shaming"?

Shaming is a ubiquitous strategy to promote international human rights. A key contention in the literature on international norms is that transnational advocacy networks can pressure states into adopting international norms by shaming them – condemning violations and urging reform. The idea is that shaming undermines a state’s legitimacy, which then incentivizes elites into complying with international norms.

In contrast, my work shows that shaming can be counterproductive, encouraging leaders in the target state to persist or “double down” on violations. That is because shaming is seen as illegitimate foreign intervention that threatens a state’s sovereignty and independence.  When viewed in this light, leaders are rewarded for standing up to such pressure and defending the nation against perceived domination. Meanwhile, leaders who “give in” have their political legitimacy undermined at home. The result is that violations tend to persist or even exacerbate.

When and where does it work better to directly confront a country’s leadership about such injustices?

At least two factors moderate the effects of international shaming. The first is the degree to which the norm being promoted is shared between the “shamer” and the target. For instance, the West may shame Uganda or Nigeria for violating LGBT rights. But if Uganda and Nigeria do not accept the “LGBT rights” norm, and refuse to accept that homophobia constitutes bad behavior, then shaming will fail. In this case, it is more likely that shaming will be viewed as illegitimate meddling by foreign powers, and will be met with indignation and defiance.

Second, shaming is quintessentially a relational process. Insofar as it is successful, shaming persuades actors to voluntary change their behavior in order to maintain valued social relationships. In the absence of such relationship, shaming will fail. This is especially so when pressure emanates from a current or historical geopolitical adversary. In this later scenario, not only will shaming fail to work, it will likely provoke defensive hostility and defiance, having a counterproductive effect.

Combing these insights, we can say that shaming is most likely to work under two conditions: when the target is a strong ally, and the norm is shared.

What are some well-known cases where "shaming" backfired?

The main example I use in my forthcoming paper is on the infamous “anti-homosexuality bill” in Uganda. When Uganda introduced the legislation in 2009 (which in some versions applied capital punishment to offenders) it provoked harsh condemnation among its foreign allies, especially in the West. Western donor countries even suspended aid in attempt to push Yoweri Musaveni’s government to abandon the bill. According to conventional accounts, the onslaught of foreign shaming, coupled with the threat of aid cuts and other material sanctions, should have worked best 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. Indeed, 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.

A Foreign Policy story quoted Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda as saying, “the mere fact that Obama threatened Museveni publicly is the very reason he chose to go ahead and sign the bill.” And Museveni did so in a particularly defiant fashion, “with the full witness of the international media to demonstrate Uganda’s independence in the face of Western pressure and provocation.”

Uganda anti-homosexuality law was finally quashed by its constitutional court, which ruled the act invalid because it was not passed with the required quorum. By dismissing the law on procedural grounds, Museveni – widely thought to have control over the court – was able to kill the legislation “without appearing to cave in to foreign pressure.” But by that time, defiance had already transformed Uganda’s normative order, entrenching homophobia into its national identity.

Does this 'doubling down' effect vary in domestic or international contexts?

Probably. States with a significant populist contingent, for instance, are especially hostile to international pressure, especially when it emanates from a historical adversary, like a former colonial power. Ironically, democracies may also be more susceptible to defiance, because elites are more beholden to their constituents, and thus are less able to “give in” to foreign pressure without undermining their own political power. 

The international context matters a great deal as well. States are more likely to resist certain norms if they have allies who feel the same way. For instance, we see significant polarization around LGBT rights at the international level, with most states in Africa and the Muslim world voting against resolutions that push LGBT rights forward. South Africa – originally a pioneer for LGBT rights – has changed its position following criticism from its regional neighbors. 

Does elite reaction drive this response to state "shaming?"

To be quite honest, this is a question I’m still exploring and I don’t have a very clear answer. My hunch at the moment is no. The “defiant” reaction occurs mainly at the level of public audiences, which then incentives elites to violate norms for political gain.  These audiences can be at either the domestic or international level. For instance, if domestic constituents are indignant by foreign shaming, elites are incentivized to “double down,” or at least remain silent, lest they undermine their own political legitimacy.

That said, elites can also strategize and manipulate these expected public reactions for their own political purposes. For instance, if Vladimir Putin knows that the Russian public will grow indignant following Western shaming, he might strategically promote a law that he knows will provoke such a reaction in order to benefit from the ensuing conflict. This is what likely occurred with Russia’s “anti-gay propaganda” law, which (unsurprisingly) provoked harsh condemnation from the West and probably bolstered Putin’s domestic popularity.

Any other important points to highlight?

One important point I’d like to highlight is the long-term effects of defiance. In an effort to resist international pressure, states take action that, in the long term, work to internalize oppositional norms in their national identity. In this way, shaming actually produces deviance, not the other way around.

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Rochelle Terman, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 721-1378,,

Clifton B. Parker, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 725-6488,