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Can human rights conditionality reduce repression? Examining the European Union’s economic agreements


The insertion of human rights commitments into international economic agreements is now a widespread practice. We argue that the effect of such commitments depends on the degree of leverage held by one partner over the other. In a comprehensive analysis of the European Union’s (EU’s) relations with developing countries, we find that human rights clauses are conditionally effective; they are associated with improved political freedom and physical integrity rights only in countries that are more heavily dependent on EU aid. An in-depth look at the EU’s enforcement of its human rights clause in the African-Caribbean-Pacific (ACP) group reveals that the Union most often responds to violations of political rights—particularly coups and flawed elections—and that enforcement is indeed a more powerful catalyst for change in highly aid-dependent states. Alternative explanations—that the impact of the human rights clause depends on legalization, the country’s strategic importance, NGO activity, or domestic institutions—find little support.

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Fig. 1


  1. Spilker and Böhmelt (2013) find that after correcting for selection, PTAs with hard human rights standards are not associated with reduced repression.

  2. On human rights treaties, see Conrad and Ritter (2013); Lupu (2015); Neumayer (2005); Simmons (2009). Compared to global treaties, human rights clauses within economic agreements activate very different mechanisms of influence and are likely to be effective under different conditions.

  3. During the Cold War, the EC’s development aid was non-political (Smith 1998, 258). Only in the post-cold war period has the West (EU included) exercised conditionality in earnest (Bearce and Tirone 2010; Dunning 2004).

  4. These include the association agreements with membership candidates, the Balkans, and the countries of the Euro-Med partnership; the partnership and cooperation agreements with former Soviet Republics; cooperation agreements with a number of countries in Asia and Latin America; and the Lomé/Cotonou agreement between the EU and ACP.

  5. In 1997, Australia declined a cooperation agreement based on its objection to the human rights clause (Smith 1998, 264); in our review of the literature, this was the only example we found.

  6. See for example Hill (2010) and Lupu (2013b).

  7. Although proponents of the normative power Europe (NPE) research program emphasize the importance of “…principles, actions and impact” (Whitman 2011, 8; Manners 2008, 46), attention has focused disproportionately on the former (Aggestam 2008).

  8. Research suggests that punishment imposed under the Cotonou Agreement may be more effective, but the impact may also depend on the political will of target country authorities, the attitude of fellow members of the ACP group, and the preferences of individual EU member states (Cuyckens 2010; Mackie and Zinke 2005; Portela 2007).

  9. The Lomé/Cotonou Agreement and all Association Agreements explicitly serve as the framework for both trade and aid benefits. Cooperation Agreements are primarily concerned with trade, but aid is incorporated under the agreements’ mechanisms for political dialogue and cooperation. See Wu (2013, 348), Miller (2004, 21).

  10. Following the suggestions of Berry et al. (2012), we can identify two symmetric interactive hypotheses: (1) the effect of the clause is positive when aid/trade dependence is high, and (2) the effect of aid/trade dependence is positive in the presence of a human rights clause. When aid/trade dependence is low, we do not expect the clause to have a significant effect on rights performance. In the absence of a clause we do not necessarily expect aid or trade dependence to exhibit an effect.

  11. Among country-years party to a human rights clause, average annual EC aid is 67 million (constant USD); among non-clause country-years, the average is 53 million. Average export volume to the EU is higher in non-clause observations than in clause observations (authors’ data).

  12. See Appendix Figure 1. The Appendix is available at the Review of International Organizations website.

  13. See for example Conrad and Ritter (2013); Fariss, The changing standard of accountability and the positive relationship between human rights treaty ratification and compliance, unpublished Hafner-Burton (2005); Hafner-Burton and Tsutsui (2005); Hathaway (2005); Hill (2010); Lupu (2013b); Neumayer (2005); Simmons (2009).

  14. Cold War observations are of little relevance to our theory, since the international community’s willingness to employ human rights conditionality was low to nil (Dunning 2004; Fierro 2003, 70–75; Meernik et al. 1998).

  15. We code only for agreements that have entered into force.

  16. This variable was coded using the European Union’s record of its legal agreements with third countries (available at

  17. Data on EC aid disbursements (gross, in constant USD) is taken from the OECD and from EuropeAid annual reports. Some data points for post-communist countries were missing during the 1990s; these were filled in using reports accessed by the authors in the European Commission archives (Brussels, May 2010). Data on GDP (constant USD) are from the World Bank Development Indicators.

  18. While aid may ebb and flow partly in response to human rights, a country’s GDP (the denominator of our measure) is plausibly exogenous to any such interactions between the EU and the country in question.

  19. Data on exports to the EU (in constant USD) are from the IMF Direction of Trade Statistics (IMF 2011). We focus on exports because these represent a crucial source of revenue for developing economies. In a robustness test, we also explore the effect of total trade (exports and imports) with the EU.

  20. We run survival models predicting the ratification of an EU economic agreement containing a human rights clause. To proxy for the government’s incentives for repression, we use Conrad and Ritter’s (2013) measure of leader job security (where greater security is argued to be associated with a larger benefit to repression, see Conrad and Ritter 2013, 401). To capture improving human rights records, we use the change (over 1 year and 3 years) in the CIRI physical integrity rights index and the V-Dem electoral democracy index. We find, however, that none of these are significant predictors of economic agreements with the EU. See Appendix 2.

  21. This method is employed by Hill (2010) in an investigation of global human rights treaties. CEM is a monotonic imbalance bounding (MIB) method. For the advantages compared to other matching methods, see Iacus et al. (2012).

  22. This dichotomous measure is based on the presence of multiparty elections and is unrelated to other aspects of human rights performance, making this an ideal variable for our purposes. Moreover, a focus on multiparty elections resonates with Bueno de Mesquita et al.’s (2005) finding that electoral competition is the aspect of democracy that is most significant for reducing human rights abuses.

  23. Of 3483 observations, 1930 were matched.

  24. Our results hold when we instead use the Freedom House political rights index.

  25. Cingranelli and Richards (2008). The index captures human rights practices, not legislation. It is coded using annual human rights reports by Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department. Cingranelli and Richards (1999) show that rights violations in the four component areas are hierarchically related and, hence, can be aggregated into a single ordered index.

  26. There is some debate among scholars as to the relative merits of Fariss’s approach versus CIRI (Fariss 2014; Richards 2016; Schnakenberg and Fariss 2014). For this reason, and because most prior research uses the CIRI index, we present results for both measures.

  27. The V-Dem and Fariss variables are continuous. Although CIRI is an ordinal variable, we nevertheless opt for OLS because of the inclusion of a lagged dependent variable. On the acceptability (and even advantages) of OLS for ordered dependent variables, particularly when the number of categories is large, see Aldrich and Cnudde (1975, 599), Andersen (2004), Lumley et al. (2002). We present pooled models as our main set of results, following prevailing practice in research on human rights (see Conrad and DeMeritt 2013; Hafner-Burton 2008; Kim and Sikkink 2010; Lupu 2013a). In robustness checks, we estimate models with country- and year-fixed effects (Appendix 8).

  28. We opt for parsimony in our main models (see Achen 2002; Schrodt 2014). Additional controls included in Appendix 3 are: oil and gas production; EU economic and military intervention (two separate measures); ratification of the ICCPR and CAT; and an indicator for whether a country is an EU membership candidate.

  29. These are: Sub-Saharan Africa, Former Soviet Union, Asia, and Middle East/North Africa (Latin America is the omitted category). Key results remain robust if region dummies are removed.

  30. We compare the Bayesian Information Criterion (BIC) and Akaike Information Criterion (AIC) for the AR(1), AR(2), and AR(3) specifications. In addition, we regress the residuals on the lagged residuals for each of these models. Based on these fit statistics and residual diagnostics, the AR(2) model is our preferred specification.

  31. This is performed using a modified version of Stata’s procedure for multiple imputation; see Fariss (2014) and Schnakenberg and Fariss (2014).

  32. This is consistent with Spilker and Böhmelt’s (2013) finding, also in a matched dataset.

  33. Interacting the clause with both aid and trade in the same model yields the same finding: the effect of the clause is conditional on aid dependence but not trade dependence.

  34. Estimates from Stata’s ‘margins’ command are based on models 2 and 5 (Table 2). We do not present marginal effects for the Fariss physical integrity rights measure because there is no accepted approach for deriving point estimates and confidence intervals from coefficients aggregated using Rubin’s rule (Rubin 1987). See footnote 29. We also examine the marginal effect of aid dependence conditional on a human rights clause, and we confirm that aid dependence has a significant (positive) effect in the presence of a clause, but not in its absence.

  35. On the linkages between different types of human rights, see also Fariss and Schnakenberg (2014).

  36. Restrictions under the Cotonou Agreement were lifted on November 1, 2014. However, other restrictive measures, such as travel bans and asset freezes targeting individuals, remain (as of February 2015).

  37. Kreutz’s (2015) coding of EU intervention does not include aid suspension, which is the tool most often used to enforce violations of the human rights clause. There is very little overlap between his cases of military/economic intervention and the cases of Article 96 consultations examined here.

  38. The European Council provides a comprehensive list of all consultations under Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement since 2000 (European Council 2015). Other sources include Bartels (2005); Bradley (2005); Crawford (2001); Del Biondo (2011); Hazelzet (2005); Holland (2002); Portela (2010); Saltnes (2013); Zimelis (2011).

  39. One of the few differences between the two agreements is Cotonou’s stronger emphasis on political dialogue with state and non-state actors.

  40. The decision to open and close consultations is made by the Council upon the recommendation of the Commission. Although qualified majority voting formally applies, in practice, decisions are made by consensus. For details, see Hazelzet (2005); Mackie and Zinke (2005).

  41. This is roughly the point at which our statistical model predicts aid dependence to have a significant effect.

  42. See for example Conrad and Ritter (2013), Conrad (2014), Dai (2005), Hathaway (2003), Lupu (2015), Neumayer (2005), Powell and Staton (2009), von Stein (2015).

  43. It is coded as “1” if the observation in question falls between −6 and 6 on the Polity2 index. Results are robust if we employ Simmons (2009) measure of partial/transitional regimes.

  44. Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement is one example. While the EU has at times withheld aid without a suspension clause (Smith 1998, 264), the clause provides a formal mechanism. 70% of country-years that were party to a human rights clause were also party to a suspension clause.

  45. See Appendix 5 for the full results.

  46. Although prior research finds that global human rights treaties have their strongest effect in transitional/partial regimes, it may be that these treaties, unlike the smaller and more narrow economic agreements under study here, are particularly well-suited to triggering domestic mobilization (see Simmons 2009, Ch. 4).

  47. Variables for total aid and trade dependence (with all countries) would be inappropriate because EU aid and trade would constitute a sizeable proportion.

  48. Results available by request.

  49. These include Canada (Clement 2012), Germany (Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development 2011), Japan (Furuoka 2005), Scandinavian countries (Piron 2005), and the UK (De Felice 2015).

  50. See footnote 41.


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Donno, D., Neureiter, M. Can human rights conditionality reduce repression? Examining the European Union’s economic agreements. Rev Int Organ 13, 335–357 (2018).

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  • Human rights
  • European Union
  • Foreign aid
  • International law