Rochelle Terman
Big Brains podcst

Why shaming other countries often backfires, with Rochelle Terman (Ep. 130)

Scholar examines the geopolitical impacts of confronting human rights violations

 Rochelle Terman
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

How do you stop a government from continuing to commit human rights abuses? You could take them to an international court of justice, or file a complaint at the UN. But none of those bodies have any enforcement power. Short of going to war, the only option on the table in most international situations is to name and shame. But is that strategy effective?

In her new book, “The Geopolitics of Shaming: When Human Rights Pressure Works and When It Backfires,” University of Chicago political scientist Rochelle Terman argues that there is a real dilemma to international human rights pressure: Shaming is most common in situations where it is least likely to be effective; and, most troublingly, it can often make human rights abuses worse.

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(Episode published February 22, 2024)

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It only takes one glance at the headlines to see that across much of the world, human rights are in crisis.

Tape: The United Nations tonight with an historic move, voting to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. This after the horrors revealed in Bucha and other Ukrainian towns after the Russians left.

Tape: The United Nations says, China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups may constitute crimes against humanity.

Tape: The UN Human Rights Commissioner says Iran is experiencing a human rights crisis as a result of the state’s violent suppression of protests.

Paul Rand: We’re constantly hearing about resolutions from the UN, condemnations from the International Court of Justice, petitions from Human Rights Watch.

Rochelle Terman: The Global Human Rights Project is a paradox.

Paul Rand: That’s Rochelle Terman, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and the author of a new book, The Geopolitics of Shaming: When Human Rights Pressure Works, and When it Backfires.

Rochelle Terman: My work, like most work in international relations, focuses on what we call the modern human rights regime. That framework began with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in 1948, and then led to the establishment of dozens of multilateral treaties like the Convention Against Torture, the convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and so on. On the one hand, it’s been incredibly successful. There are six core human rights treaties, and they have something like an average of 92% average ratification rate. It’s widely accepted and endorsed.

Paul Rand: But of course-

Rochelle Terman: Human rights are routinely violated every day. For that reason, some scholars have described this regime as the paradox of empty promises.

Paul Rand: This may be surprising to some listeners unfamiliar with international relations, but despite the endless numbers of UN councils and courts you hear about in the news, none of them actually have any enforcement power.

Rochelle Terman: Ultimately, the influence of those rulings rely on the willingness of governments to comply with them, and they can choose to comply with them or not.

Paul Rand: Which, short of going to war, leaves only one option on the table to force human rights abusers to change: naming and shaming.

Rochelle Terman: So far, the consensus has been that shaming is really one of the best tools that we have. Since the international system is anarchic, there’s no world government, there’s no global police, our tools are limited to actually enforce international law and international norms. The idea is that shaming creates pressure on the target government.

Paul Rand: Despite this being the predominant view, Terman’s new book instead argues that shaming often is misguided, and at its worst, counterproductive.

Rochelle Terman: There is this tragedy baked in, that shaming is most common in situations where it’s the least likely to be effective.

Paul Rand: And not only ineffective, in many cases, it actually makes human rights abuses worse.

Rochelle Terman: I think so, and I think others are starting to appreciate that as well, that shaming, in many cases, not only fails to induce compliance, but can even backfire, in some situations, by provoking resistance and worsening human rights practices.

Paul Rand: So that begs the question, why do we shame it all?

Rochelle Terman: We still see it practiced all the time by virtually every country in the world. I wanted to know both why countries use this tool to enforce human rights in the first place, and also, what the effects of shaming were on the target country.

Paul Rand: Welcome to Big Brains, where we translate the biggest ideas and complex discoveries into digestible brain food. Big brains, little bites, from the University of Chicago Podcast Network. I’m your host, Paul Rand. On today’s episode, the geopolitics of shaming.

Well, we’re here to talk about shaming. I think any of us that have had parents, or our parents, we have an idea of what that is, but we’re talking about that in a slightly different, and arguably much more meaningful context, aren’t we?

Rochelle Terman: Yes, although I became a recent parent myself, so I’m getting more acquainted with that side of things.

Paul Rand: Okay.

Rochelle Terman: Yes, the book is mostly about international shaming, although I think a lot of the lessons can be applied to interpersonal as well.

Paul Rand: I think you’re right, and I think as people listen to this, are going to start thinking through some other aspects of what shaming is or isn’t, and when it works and so forth. As you use the word shaming in relation to international relations, how do you think about what that term actually means?

Rochelle Terman: For example, when Amnesty International asks you to sign a petition on behalf of a political person in China, let’s say, or the UN issues a resolution denouncing war crimes in Syria, that’s shaming. It’s putting the country in the spotlight, denouncing violations, issuing some kind of social sanction and urging reform. On the one hand, shaming of countries works in the same way that shaming individuals work, when it does work. There’s just an intrinsic national pride that you want to belong to the club of civilized nations. There’s no country on earth that brags about it being uncivilized, or brags about it being a human rights abuser. There could also be practical reasons, more practical reasons why states might care. For example, countries rely on other countries for a lot of international benefits. Those international benefits can be compromised. It could also mobilize domestic opposition in the target state. It empowers local domestic groups, activists, human rights advocates, even just the domestic population to mobilize against their own government. That, at least, has been the-

Paul Rand: Philosophy about it.

Rochelle Terman: That’s right.

Paul Rand: Now, in your mind, this is not only misguided, but could just be flat out wrong. As you get into your argument, I wonder if you can set the stage, and outline this framework about what is just fundamentally so wrong about this?

Rochelle Terman: My basic argument, in a nutshell, is that we should think of shaming relationally. The strategic relationship between the shamer and the target is going to be really important, and it affects the decisions of both actors. States shame their friends and adversaries in really different ways.

Paul Rand: Right.

Rochelle Terman: There are few incentives to criticize your friends. We don’t want to undermine that strategic relationship, and it’s going to take a lot to overcome those, what I call enforcement costs, and actually condemn human rights violations.

Paul Rand: For instance, take the reaction to China’s human rights abuses against their Muslim Uyghur population.

Rochelle Terman: We see a situation where China’s allies, including many Muslim nations, have refused to condemn China’s alleged abuse of the Uyghurs, because they fear undermining a profitable partnership.

Tape: The Muslim world claims to be a defender of their faith. Most of them were quick to slam Myanmar for its treatment of Rohingyas, and rightly so. What is not right is their double standards. The same Muslim nations cannot seem to find the courage to call out China for abusing its Muslims. What explains their silence? Their dependence on China for investments and for loans.

Rochelle Terman: On the other hand, leaders will condemn their rivals all the time, regardless of their genuine normative beliefs, because it provides a strategic advantage.

Paul Rand: Yes.

Rochelle Terman: Oftentimes, it’s an attempt to weaponize shaming to inflict political damage. If shaming comes from a friend, it’s just more credible, and it really leverages this relationship. “If you want to continue this relationship, you better do what I say.” Shaming that’s coming from rivals is less costly. There’s no valuable relationship to protect, so there are fewer incentives to make the shamer happy by complying. Plus, shaming from adversaries is often much less credible. It’s seen, often rightly, as a cynical attempt to sully the target’s reputation. As a result, shaming involves this tragedy where shaming occurs most often in situations where it’s least likely to be effective.

Paul Rand: It may seem like a simple theoretical framework, but once you start applying it to real-world situations, events that seemed inscrutable become clear. There are two examples that Terman thinks best explain how this framework operates.

Rochelle Terman: In the book, I compare two cases of human rights abuses. One focuses on Saudi Arabia and the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Tape: A U.S. intelligence report has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally approved the murder of the exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. He was killed while visiting the Saudi Consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul.

Rochelle Terman: The other focuses on Iran, whereby a woman by the name of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani was sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery. These two cases are really similar in a number of respects. They both involve a Middle Eastern country that is widely regarded as abusive and authoritarian. Both cases involve pretty clear and compelling evidence of human rights abuse, both involve the same observing countries, the United States and western allies, that now has to decide, how are you going to react to these abuses? Where they diverge is around geopolitical relationships.

Paul Rand: Right.

Rochelle Terman: Saudi Arabia is a really important strategic partner to the United States. We have a mutually beneficial relationship. When Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in 2018, the United States government, first Trump but later Biden, they were both very hesitant to punish Saudi Arabia in any meaningful way.

Donald Trump: I’m not going to tell a country that spending hundreds of billions of dollars, and has helped me do one thing very importantly, keep oil prices down so that they’re not going to a $100 and $150 a barrel. Right no,. We have oil prices in great shape. I’m not going to destroy the world economy, and I’m not going to destroy the economy for our country by being foolish with Saudi Arabia.

Tape: Biden’s historic visit to Saudi Arabia has drawn criticism amid concerns over the nation’s human rights record and its involvement in the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Rochelle Terman: Saudi Arabia did not appreciate being criticized in this area, and they made explicit threats to retaliate economically. The tragedy in that case is that, if we actually mustered the political will, imposed meaningful costs or shame on Saudi Arabia, then we could have perhaps had a meaningful impact there because of our strategic relationship.

This case focuses on Iran, and this massive international shaming operation in 2010, 2011, in response to this Iranian woman who was sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery. This time, we didn’t go easy on Iran like we did the Saudis, and especially European countries strongly condemned Iran.

Tape: This issue matters to all member states, and should be addressed EU-wide in relation to Iran, bringing human rights to our agenda more prominently. Today, we’re talking about people, women, individuals whose lives, even if they are still alive, are effectively over. Zara and Sakineh are no exception to the thousands of prisoners in Iran who are less known, and who may feel as though their voices are not heard.

Rochelle Terman: The effects of that pressure. I think, were very questionable. I make the case in the book that shaming was counterproductive there, because it backed Iranian leaders into a corner. It unleashed these political dynamics within Iran that really inhibited their ability to comply. I don’t actually think that, at the high levels, Iranian leaders cared too much about this particular woman, but now that it became a boxing match in the international arena, they really just could not give in to what they saw as western bullying.

Tape: Our main source here is an organization called the International Committee Against Stoning in Iran, based in Europe. It’s been very active trying to organize protests against the death penalty inside Iran. They say they have spoken with Ms. Ashtiani for 10 minutes at Tabriz Prison in Northern Iran.

Rochelle Terman: The Iranian case is interesting because what we eventually saw was that some of Iran’s allies entered the picture. Brazil added their voice to the international shaming.

Tape: She thanked the president of Brazil, Lula da Silva, for his offer of asylum to her, to help her escape the death penalty by stoning.

Rochelle Terman: I think pressure from Brazil meant something very different from pressure from France, for example, and was much more effective.

Tape: News that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani will not now be executed by stoning.

Paul Rand: In essence, we’re not really taking much opportunity to “Shame” our friends, and when we are shaming rivals, your contention really is, it’s probably the least likely to be effective. The question is, why are we doing it?

Rochelle Terman: Shaming can be rational even when it is not expected to work. Work meaning actually promote compliance.

Paul Rand: Make a change.

Rochelle Terman: Make a change, or make a positive change. Let’s just put it that way. That’s because compliance, or making a positive change, is often not the primary goal, to be frank.

Paul Rand: Right.

Rochelle Terman: Leaders might not actually care about human rights violations, but they can collect these rewards from audiences, like their domestic population, who do support human rights. I call these meta norms. It’s something akin to virtue signaling. If your goal is to stigmatize your opponent, what you want to think of weaponized shaming, you might actually want them to continue violating, because it provides additional opportunities for you to stigmatize them. That’s how we can get into a vicious spiral, or a bad equilibrium.

Paul Rand: Not only can shaming be ineffective, but Terman’s research shows that it can often backfire, making the human rights situation in a country even worse. How that works, how to avoid it, and if there are any lessons for the U.S. after the break.

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One of the most important aspects of Terman’s work is demonstrating not only why shaming often doesn’t work, but also how it can make things worse.

Rochelle Terman: People typically don’t like being told what to do, especially by foreign actors. This is perhaps not the most mind-blowing insight. However, it’s really important when it comes to international shaming, because if the domestic public has a defensive reaction, it incentivizes governments to double down or even exacerbate violations, because that’s a tangible way for them to achieve legitimacy.

Paul Rand: To see how this works in practice, Terman turns to Uganda.

Rochelle Terman: In 2014, Uganda, and Nigeria as well, attempted to criminalize homosexuality.

Tape: Earlier this year, an anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda’s parliament received strong reactions on both sides of the debate. The law would make some homosexual acts punishable by death.

Rochelle Terman: Western countries condemned Uganda very strongly for this, and some reporters observed that there was actually a spike in human rights violations of LGBT people.

Paul Rand: My goodness.

Rochelle Terman: There was this massive defensive reaction that was highly symbolically salient of western countries, former colonial powers telling Uganda what to do in very intimate and sensitive matters. President Museveni was backed into a corner at the time, because even if he himself didn’t support the bill, and maybe agreed with western countries that it went too far, he really couldn’t back down, because that was seen domestically as giving in to western domination, and it was going to be very politically costly at home.

Tape: Critics of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni say he signed that country’s anti-gay law to win domestic support ahead of the 2016 presidential election, but it lost him friends abroad, with several international donors freezing or redirecting millions of dollars in government aid.

Rochelle Terman: Sometimes, international shaming can really prevent positive change, or compliance.

Paul Rand: Shaming campaigns can also often harm the efforts of local advocacy groups who may be better positioned to work on issues if it weren’t for the foreign attention. Such a case happened in Nigeria, concerning a woman named Amina Lawal.

Rochelle Terman: Amina Lawal was a Nigerian woman who was sentenced to be stoned to death in 2002 for adultery. Understandably, sparked a lot of outrage in the West, and many western groups sent petitions and letters shaming Nigeria for this. Local advocacy groups actually called on western women’s rights organizations to stop. They actually published a public letter asking western groups to cease these petitions and letters, and that’s because they were really damaging the credibility of local advocates. They were accused now of colluding with foreign governments. It incited retaliatory violence in some cases, and some officials were reportedly more committed to carrying out Lawal’s death sentence as a result of these letters. In those situations, local advocacy groups are not empowered by international pressure. It’s quite the contrary.

Paul Rand: Terman’s argument is built on more than just observational data. She also documented how this framework plays out qualitatively, using something called the Universal Periodic Review.

Rochelle Terman: The Universal Periodic Review, I’m just going to call it the UPR for short, is a process conducted by the United Nations to periodically review the human rights situations of every UN country. The way that it works is through a system of peer review. A country like the United States goes up for review every four years or so, and every other country has the opportunity to offer feedback in the form of specific recommendations. “We recommend that you outlaw the death penalty,” things like that. Then, the state under review has to publicly respond, and decide whether to accept or reject each recommendation it receives. It provides this really nice laboratory for international shaming, because we can use statistical analysis to see what the effects of strategic relationships are in that process. It turns out that they do play a really important role. States tend to go easier on their friends in the review process. They’re less severe in their commentary. They avoid super sensitive topics like torture, or genocide. When geopolitical friends do criticize, their recommendations, their feedback are accepted more often compared to substantively identical recommendations.

Paul Rand: I may be remembering this wrong, Rochelle, but isn’t the United States the most cited in terms of abuses?

Rochelle Terman: The United States received the last time, at least in the last round, the most number of recommendations, the most amount of feedback in the Universal Periodic Review, and it’s often the country that tends to get the most attention from Amnesty International. We are one of the few countries that still implement the death penalty, that gets a lot of criticism from other countries. We have a number of human rights abuses in the criminal justice system. Our relationship to international institutions is funny, because on the one hand, we as the United States have a great deal of influence on those institutions. We set a lot of them up after World War II. On the other hand, the American public also tends to be very suspicious of international authority, and international law. We simply don’t think that it applies to us.

Paul Rand: In other words, we’re not immune to the backlash effect.

Rochelle Terman: In the book, I conduct an experiment on a sample of Americans. One group was told about a human rights organization that was shaming other countries for abuses related to the criminal justice system. They were asked, what do you think of that? The respondents largely supported it. They liked the idea of an international human rights campaign that was focused on that issue. The other group was given the exact same prompt, only now, it was the United States that was being targeted, and the responses were very different. Here, people were much less supportive of international advocacy, much less likely to donate to such an organization, less supportive of human rights in general. They became more nationalistic.

Paul Rand: Wow.

Rochelle Terman: They thought that the human rights record of the United States was better compared to the other group.

Paul Rand: Very interesting.

Rochelle Terman: I don’t think the United States is all that unique in this regard. I remember seeing a news report by Fox News that reported all the criticism that the United States got in the Universal Periodic Review. They were advertising and publicizing how criticized we were. I think the point of an article like that is to tap into that defensive outrage, how dare these other countries tell us what to do, and to stir up some hostility towards the process. That’s common in a lot of places. There have been similar studies that are conducted in China and Israel, with similar results. I do think that the United States has this maybe particular hostility towards the idea of other countries telling us what to do, even though we really support human rights in general.

Paul Rand: If there’s one part of the world where human rights gets politicized and is at the top of almost everyone’s mind at the moment, it’s Israel and Palestine.

Rochelle Terman: The politicization of human rights has long been on display when it comes to Israel. Just some historical context, on the one hand, the former United Nations Human Rights Committee, the current United Nations Human Rights Council, has often been accused of anti-Israel bias, promoting a double standard. For example, the Human Rights Council has passed more resolutions condemning Israel than the rest of the world combined. In 2006, the council voted to make a review of the human rights abuses in Israel a permanent feature of every council session. No other conflict has that status. That criticism, that international pressure, unsurprisingly, doesn’t tend to work very well on Israeli public opinion, and if anything, it drives a very defensive reaction precisely because it’s seen as hypocritical, coming from a place of anti-Israel, or even anti-Semitic bias. Israel is calling the current prosecution of war crimes in the International Court of Justice blood libel. It’s just not credible.

On the other hand, I also think it’s pretty clear that Israel’s allies, especially the United States, make concerted efforts to protect Israel from legitimate human rights criticism because of our own geopolitical interests. The politicization works both ways here, and for a long time, many of the countries punished for war crimes and human rights violations, whether in the International Criminal Court, or through shaming, or through military intervention, have been in the global south, and the United States and western countries have been protected. There has been a real imbalance there historically, in favor of powerful White countries. I think all of that sets the stage to understand why it’s significant that South Africa is specifically bringing these charges of genocide.

Tape: The UN’s top court ordered Israel to prevent acts of genocide against Palestinians, and do more to help civilians. The court stopped short of calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, though. Today’s ruling by the International Court of Justice comes as part of a case brought by South Africa, accusing Israel of committing genocide. Israel has rejected that allegation.

Rochelle Terman: South Africa, here’s a country with a very recent history of racist colonial violence and apartheid, apartheid which was supported by the United States and Israel for a long time. Palestine has been a very prominent issue in South Africa since its founding. It holds a tremendous symbolic importance, both domestically within South Africa, but also internationally, because this is an attempt to push back against what South Africans and many other countries see as hypocrisy in how war crimes and human rights abuses have been prosecuted. In my framework, I refer to those as meta-norms. South Africa is reaping its own rewards. Do I think it’ll deter Israel in any way? No, and that’s because the International Court of Justice, as we discussed, has no enforcement power by itself, and there is often this defensive reaction domestically. The only way that international pressure is going to have an effect, in my view, is if it comes from the United States, and other countries from Europe, but especially the United States.

Paul Rand: If you take the position that Israel is committing human rights abuses, it really becomes crucial to petition the U.S. government to shame Israel into compliance. If you take the opposite position, you want the U.S. to remain silent.

Rochelle Terman: That’s why many people in the United States are pressuring Biden to do something.

Paul Rand: We are, I think, pretty clear that the case you’re making, that this shaming in many situations does not work. I wonder if you can talk about it, and say, “Let us tell you, this won’t work, but here’s a way that you can impact change in different parts of the world, that we ought to be leaning more into.”

Rochelle Terman: Sure. There is a dilemma here, because human rights abuses do demand some kind of action. We can’t just let violations take place, I don’t think. On the other hand, there are these real risks. I do think there are other tactics. One is private diplomacy. Countries that are working behind the scenes will often do that to mitigate the potential for this defensive negative reaction in public audiences. It makes a difference whether you say it out loud versus if you say it behind closed doors. The problem with public diplomacy is that you get less credit for fixing human rights violations, because it is behind closed doors. You’re not going to get as much fanfare for it, but it’s probably going to be more effective.

If you’re not in government, I think the most important thing that we can do as individuals or activists is to focus our efforts on actors that do actually hold some political or economic leverage against violating government. In the Iran example that I brought up earlier, it was activists in Brazil that were pressuring the Brazilian administration to intervene, that I think if there was any positive change, that’s where we saw it. Instead of trying to shame the Saudi Prince, for example, you put pressure on businesses and policymakers that have ties to the Saudi Prince. You demand that the United States muster the political will, and face even economic costs for the sake of human rights protections.

Paul Rand: It may have already occurred to you that Terman’s theory is relevant beyond just international relations. In fact, it may hold some key lessons for our domestic problems as well, specifically political polarization.

Rochelle Terman: Some people get a kick from being shamed, and are rewarded for being shamed, and violating norms, and that’s especially true in hyper polarized environments. For example, imagine a Trump supporter getting kicked out of a restaurant for wearing a MAGA hat, and then bragging about it to other Trump supporters. It’s not just MAGA, not just Republicans or conservatives. I am in Hyde Park, it’s a pretty liberal, progressive environment. Tomorrow, Ted Cruz or someone tweets, “Shame on you, Rochelle Terman, for violating conservative norms,” that would be the best thing to ever happen to me. It would give me an incredible amount of street cred, regardless of how I felt about it personally. The main point is that shaming isn’t always costly. In fact, shaming from an out group generates real, tangible rewards and incentives. I think that dynamic explains a lot of Donald Trump’s tendency to transgress norms, why shaming doesn’t always tend to work, especially on social media. It feeds right into the playbook.

Paul Rand: It’s easy to see the implications of Terman’s theory for our modern call out, or cancel culture, but it’s not all negative.

Rochelle Terman: I focus on backlash, but I do think that there’s a positive side to the story here, or at least a suggestion for how we can effectively enforce norms. The trick is that it has to occur within an established relationship that both parties care about and wants to sustain. The problem with our society right now is that, for a host of historical, sociological, political reasons, those cross partisan or cross ideological relationships are becoming more and more rare. You see less intra partisan marriages. Your neighbors are less likely to be from... and they’re becoming harder and harder to sustain, unfortunately. You often hear about people who are cutting ties with their grandma who supports QAnon, for example.

I’m not advising to your listeners that they stay in toxic relationships, or anything like that, but just to recognize that the best chance to change someone’s mind, it’s not through social media, it’s not through mass messaging. It’s through the intimacy of a personal relationship, and the leverage that holds in people’s lives. It’s saying, “Look, this is damaging our relationship. I value our relationship. I really want you to consider this other course of action if you want to stay in a relationship with me.”

Paul Rand: If indeed, in our own personal relationships, whether your partner or your child, whatever the case might be, anything beyond what you just talked about, that you would say, here’s a direct application?

Rochelle Terman: Just that putting your partner on blast on Facebook for not doing the laundry probably isn’t the most effective strategy. What changed people’s minds is the relationship you have with that person. You say to your partner, you say to your friend, “This behavior is hurting our relationship, and I don’t want to see that.” In my experience, that often leads to much less defensiveness than accusations, especially public accusations.

Matt Hodapp: Big Brains is a production of the University of Chicago Podcast Network. We’re sponsored by the Graham School. Are you a lifelong learner with an insatiable curiosity? Access more than 50 open enrollment courses every quarter. Learn more at If you like what you heard on our podcast, please leave us a rating and review. The show is hosted by Paul M. Rand, and produced by Lea Ceasrine and me, Matt Hodapp. Thanks for listening.

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