Shame on You: The Impact of Human Rights Criticism on Political Repression in Latin America


Author’s note: An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2003 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. I am grateful to Whitney Franklin, Sidney Tarrow, the editors at ISQ, and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article. Replication materials may be found on the International Studies Quarterly web site at and at


The most commonly used weapon in the arsenal of human rights proponents is shaming the violating government through public criticism. But does this really affect the behavior of the violator? This study examines how governments that are targeted for human rights criticism respond to subsequent contentious challenges. Analyzing 873 challenges in seven Latin American countries between 1981 and 1995, it is found that human rights criticism does lead governments to reduce repression of subsequent challenges in cases where there are relatively strong economic ties to other countries. However, the duration of this impact is relatively short—less than 6 months. Examination of the source of human rights criticism shows that criticism by NGOs, religious groups, and foreign governments was more effective than criticism from inter-governmental organizations.