The relational politics of shame: Evidence from the universal periodic review


International human rights institutions often rely on “naming and shaming” to promote compliance with global norms. Critics charge that such institutions are too politicized; states condemn human rights violations selectively, based on their strategic interests, while protecting friends and allies. In this view, politicization undermines shaming’s credibility and thus its effectiveness. This paper offers an alternative account of such institutions and the mechanism by which they promote human rights. We argue that interstate shaming is an inherently political exercise that operates through strategic relationships, not in spite of them. While states are less likely to criticize their friends and allies, any criticism they do offer is more influential precisely because of this pre-existing partnership. We test this argument through quantitative analysis of the most elaborate human rights mechanism in the international system: the United Nations Universal Periodic Review. We find that states are more lenient towards their strategic partners in the peer-review process. Yet when they do criticize, their recommendations are accepted more often than substantially identical recommendations emanating from other states with fewer strategic ties. Insofar as shaming disseminates powerful signals regarding political relationships between states, these interactions can be meaningful and influential, even as they remain selective and politicized.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Several of these studies compare shaming emanating from various kinds of actors (i.e., NGOs, Western media, foreign governments, intergovernmental organizations), but do not disaggregate further.

  2. 2.

    The basis of country reviews include: (a) the Charter of the UN; (b) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; (c) human rights instruments to which a State is party; and (d) voluntary pledges and commitments made by the State, including those undertaken when presenting their candidature for election to the HRC (General Assembly resolution 60/251 2006, para. 1–2).

  3. 3.

    Although not every state voted to pass Resolution 60/251 (notably, the United States voted against it), participation in the UPR, both as a reviewer and as a state under review, is voluntary.

  4. 4.

    Reviews typically last 3.5 h; the SuR’s overall speaking time is 70 min while other states have a total of 140 min (UPR Info 2015).

  5. 5.

    The troika has no specific role during the interactive dialogue itself. Following the review, the troika is responsible for preparing the report of the Working Group, containing a full account of the proceedings.

  6. 6.

    For another example of the relational approach applied to naming and shaming, see Esarey and DeMeritt (2016), who argue that the impact of shaming on aid depends on the political relationship between donor and recipient.

  7. 7.

    It is beyond the scope of this paper to address when and why states shame their strategic allies. Future studies may examine this phenomenon in greater depth, for instance by investigating whether the correlates of inter-ally criticism differs from other shaming relations.

  8. 8.

    Indeed, by controlling for shared region in our analyses, our findings support this view. We do not claim that strategic relations are more important or influential than cultural or geographic relations. However, we believe that strategic ties involve a specific mechanism that is distinct from the influence of shared geography and/or culture. For that reason, we limit our analysis to strategic relations in this study.

  9. 9.

    At the time of writing, data from reviews occurring in Sessions 21 through 26 were not yet available.

  10. 10.

    See online Appendix, available on the Review of International Organizations’ webpage, for details.

  11. 11.

    See online Appendix for details.

  12. 12.

    E.g., “share best practices,” “request technical assistance.”

  13. 13.

    Our results are also robust with a 4-point ordinal variable. See online Appendix.

  14. 14.

    Aid (Reviewer to Target) is operationalized slightly different across analysis. In the first analyses exploring reviewer behavior, this variable represents the proportion of total aid donations the reviewer spends on the target. Larger numbers reflect greater interest in the welfare of the SuR. In the second analysis exploring target behavior, Aid (Reviewer to Target) reflects the proportion of target’s total aid receipts that comes from the target. This reflects the degree of aid dependence the SuR has on the reviewing country.

  15. 15.

    These clusters are based on co-occurrences of themes in recommendations. See online Appendix for details. As a robustness check, we estimated the empirical models described below using slightly different groupings, which had no substantive effect on the main findings.

  16. 16.

    Our argument states that shaming is conditional on the political relationship between sender and target. We chose to estimate this conditional relationship through two-stage selection models. An alternative empirical approach would be to estimate an interactive model on all dyads, where we interact the issuance of a recommendation with the various indicators for political relationships. This would be problematic for three reasons. First, reviewer states often issue multiple recommendations. Our current set-up estimates effects at the recommendation level. Second, this model wouldn’t take into account that political relationships influence the severity of recommendations. Third, and most importantly, we don’t have outcome data for countries that don’t receive recommendations. For these reasons, we believe our two-stage approach is the appropriate way to model our parameters of interest.

  17. 17.

    Time constraints limit the number of states participating during the interactive dialogue, and commentators have a mere three minutes to make recommendations. This structure incentivizes the SuR to solicit the input of friendly states, which tend to eschew harsh criticism in favor of praise and positive feedback, often with the understanding of reciprocal treatment when it comes time for their own review. As one diplomat put it, many states view the UPR as a means to “protect” and “support” each other from criticism, especially criticism emanating from Western Europe (McMahon 2012b, 16).

  18. 18.

    In the regression analyses below, some targets in the UPR process, such as Palestine and the Vatican, drop out because they are not UN member states.

  19. 19.

    Only comments presented orally during the working group sessions are entered into the record (McMahon 2012b, 13). When states are HRC members, they typically have human rights delegations in Geneva that are expected to participate in sessions. If states are themselves undergoing a UPR review, they may be more likely to give softer reviews, but we include an indicator that captures this as a control.

  20. 20.

    Results are reported in the online Appendix.

  21. 21.

    The UN’s independent experts play a role on the margin but they rarely expose rights violations that were not already otherwise known (Piccone and Piccone 2012).


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An earlier version of this article was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (San Francisco, 2015), the Human Rights in an Age of Ambiguity conference (New York City, 2016), and the International Relations colloquium at the University of California, Berkeley. For helpful commends, we thank the participants at those workshops, especially Marc Limon, Jeanette Money, and Laura Stoker. We are grateful to Erin Sielaff and Mathison Clore for excellent research assistance. This research was supported in part by the University of California Institute for Global Conflict and Cooperation and the University of California Berkeley Institute of International Studies.

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Correspondence to Rochelle Terman.

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Terman, R., Voeten, E. The relational politics of shame: Evidence from the universal periodic review. Rev Int Organ 13, 1–23 (2018).

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  • United Nations
  • Universal periodic review
  • Human rights
  • Naming and shaming
  • Quantitative analysis

JEL Classification

  • F53