A Civil Religion for World Society: The Direct and Diffuse Effects of Human Rights Treaties, 1981–2007


  • A version of this article was presented at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas. I thank participants in the Comparative Systems workshop at Stanford University—and in particular John Meyer, Francisco Ramirez, and Patricia Bromley—for their generous feedback on a previous draft of this article. Thanks also to Karen Cerulo and anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions.


Much research has concluded that human rights treaties have a null or negative effect on governments’ human rights practices. This article reexamines the influence of human rights treaties, with a focus on two kinds of treaty effects: direct—the effect of treaties on the countries that ratified them; and diffuse—the effect of treaties on countries regardless of ratification. My analysis of two prominent human rights treaties finds that they often reduce levels of repression and abuse over time and independently of ratification. Some of these effects are nonlinear, reversing direction as time elapses or as more countries become party to the treaties. These findings are interpreted with reference to world polity institutionalism in sociology, and especially the “Durkheimian” strains of this approach. Human rights norms as embodied in treaties operate as a kind of civil religion for world society. These norms not only have long-term direct effects among countries that ritualistically ratify human rights treaties, but they also diffusely impact countries irrespective of formal endorsement.