Thinking inside the box: A closer look at democracy and human rights

Bruce Bueno De Mesquita, George W. Downs, Alastair Smith, Feryal Marie Cherif

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


    Research on human rights consistently points to the importance of democracy in reducing the severity and incidence of personal integrity abuses. The prescriptive implications of this finding for policy makers interested in state building have been somewhat limited, however, by a reliance on multidimensional measures of democracy. Consequently, a policy maker emerges from this literature confident that ";democracy matters"; but unclear about which set(s) of reforms is likely to yield a greater human rights payoff. Using data from the Polity IV Project, we examine what aspects of democracy are most consequential in improving a state's human rights record. Analysis of democracy's dimensions elicits three findings. First, political participation at the level of multiparty competition appears more significant than other dimensions in reducing human rights abuses. Second, improvements in a state's level of democracy short of full democracy do not promote greater respect for integrity rights. Only those states with the highest levels of democracy, not simply those conventionally defined as democratic, are correlated with better human rights practices. Third, accountability appears to be the critical feature that makes full-fledged democracies respect human rights; limited accountability generally retards improvement in human rights.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)439-458
    Number of pages20
    JournalInternational Studies Quarterly
    Issue number3
    StatePublished - Sep 2005

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Sociology and Political Science
    • Political Science and International Relations


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