The Hard Cases: Public Reactions to International Law

Stephen Chaudoin

Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In May 2016, Rodrigo Duterte won the Presidency of the Philippines by capturing 38.5% of the popular vote among a crowded field of candidates. His campaign emphasized his tough on crime credentials from his time as mayor of Davao City, and he promised to crack down on crime and drugs at the national level.

He has delivered on that promise with a violent, multifaceted war on drugs. While estimates vary, many believe that thousands have died during the campaign. Many of those deaths resulted from “Operation Knock and Plead” where police raid homes of suspected criminals who then plead for their lives. Human rights groups claim that these operations are often based on little to no evidence or they are contract killings funded by local police.

The killings are noteworthy from the perspective of international law for at least two reasons.  First, the Philippines ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2011 which increases its exposure to a possible investigation. Ratification allows the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor to initiate an investigation on its own. For non-members, investigations require a referral by the United Nations Security Council, a huge barrier, in practice. The lower barrier for member states explains why so many countries with higher likelihoods of future crimes elect to stay out of the ICC.

The ICC also operates on a principal of complementarity, meaning that it only intervenes if domestic institutions are unwilling or unable to do so. President Duterte has explicitly pledged to oppose any prosecutions, domestic or foreign, which undermines a defense against ICC actions based on complementarity.

A second noteworthy aspect of the war on drugs is that is has been conducted in plain view of the public, who seem to strongly approve. While other leaders who presided over widespread violence concealed or denied the problem, President Duterte has been unabashed and vocal in his approval of the war on drugs.

The largest dip in his support for the war occurred when local police officials kidnapped and murdered a South Korean businessman in a bungled extortion attempt. Duterte transferred the war on drugs away from the police, making it a military operation, though he returned to police operations after less than two months. The rapid accumulation of deaths then resumed.

Philippine citizens express strong approval for the war on drugs. Duterte enjoys a 63% approval rating, which compares favorably to previous presidents. In the most recently available survey data from the fourth quarter of 2016, 74% of respondents were satisfied with the government’s promotion of human rights, and 78% approved of the war on drugs.

These two features – direct, acknowledged contravention of international law and strong public approval – are in stark contrast to the predictions of the vast majority of political science research on the efficacy of international law and its effects on public opinion.

Political science research has long recognized that international institutions lack direct enforcement powers, and must therefore lean heavily on bottom-up support from citizens and activists within countries under investigation. More recent work examines those arguments at the “micro-level,” since citizens, and how they react to international law, play a key role in theoretical arguments based on subnational enforcement.

Often, this research analyzes survey experiments that examine respondent’s approval of certain policies under a treatment condition – in which the respondent was told the policy violated international law – and a control condition – in which the respondent was not told about international law.

For example, Michael Tomz found that when he asked United States survey respondents about potential trade sanctions against Burma, telling them that the sanctions violated international law increased their disapproval of the policy by 17%. Sarah Kreps and Geoffrey Wallace found that telling survey respondents that drone strikes violated international laws decreased support for strikes by 6-8%. Adam Chilton found that telling US citizens that a hypothetical bombing campaign would violate international law decreased approval by 12%. In related research, he also found that telling citizens that solitary confinement violated international law decreased approval of the practice.

How to square the arguments of these studies with experiences in the Philippines and in other locations, where citizens actively support the politicians behind practices that violate international law? One incongruity is that existing work tends to be “one-sided,” meaning that it focuses on real or hypothetical effects of international law on citizens and activists who support international law. 

Yet, the practices that international law govern inhabit contested spaces. There are both proponents and opponents of the practices in question, as well as supporters and opponents of the politicians in power. In recent research on the Kenyan experience with the ICC, I showed how ICC indictments mobilized the efforts of citizens and politicians who both supported and opposed the ICC. Indicted politicians thwarted the ICC by forming a successful political alliance.  This research sought to provide a more general, two-sided model of international institutions that can aid future studies in different contexts.

Existing research also tends to emphasize hypothetical, and lower salience issues in survey experiments. In real situations regarding international law, however, the stakes are high and citizens have distinct, strong opinions. Citizens’ preferences over the actual policies and outcomes in question overshadow any effects of international law, as seen in survey experimental research on trade disputes. International law mattered little for citizens who had stronger opinions about free trade, either in support or opposition.

More recently, Terrence Chapman and I sought to assess citizens’ reactions to a hypothetical, foreign ICC investigation, compared to a possible investigation into a very real, recent, and salient phenomenon. To do so, we surveyed citizens in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, which is a partially democratic country with a recent history of violence. This was a good setting to assess citizens’ reactions to the ICC because Kyrgyzstan experienced significant civil violence in 2010, between ethnically Uzbek and Kyrgyz residents in the country’s southern regions of Osh and Jalal-Abad. In other words, it provided a type of blank slate to assess possible reactions to an ICC investigation.

Respondents reacted with greater disapproval when asked to consider an ICC investigation into the 2010 Osh violence, compared to an investigation into a hypothetical foreign country. The intensity of this reaction also varied considerably among respondents. The largest negative reactions occurred in regions that were closest to the violence, particularly among ethnic Uzbeks who suffered the brunt of the violence. This finding runs contrary to the majority of existing work arguing that international law uniformly induces support among these populations.

While the Philippine situation unfolds day by day, early data are more supportive of a contested, two-sided reaction to international law. With the support of the Cline Center for Democracy at the University of Illinois, I have begun collecting events data, showing how many pro-accountability actions by groups like Amnesty International or UN officials are swiftly met with counter-actions by Duterte and his supporters. Data from Twitter users in the Philippines also suggest a highly contested narrative. Data on the trajectory of the killings themselves, suggests that they have continued unabated in the face of repeated mentions of international law.

Studying and understanding these “hard cases,” where the public does not support international legal interventions represents an important way forward for future research.  We need to start understanding how the battle for public opinion over international law unfolds “in real time.”

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