International Human Rights and Domestic Income Inequality: A Difficult Case of Compliance in World Society

Source: Wade M. Cole, American Sociological Review, Vol. 80 no. 2, April 2015

From the abstract:
Much research finds that human rights treaties fail to improve domestic practices unless governments are held accountable in some fashion. The implication is that noncompliance can be attributed to insincere commitments and willful disobedience. I challenge this claim for a core but overlooked treaty: the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Few analysts have studied the ICESCR because its terms are difficult to implement and suitable measures for judging compliance are hard to find. I analyze its association with income inequality, using data for more than 100 countries (1981 to 2005) and methods that account for the possibility of reverse causality. ICESCR membership reduces inequality in both developed and developing countries, although the relationship is stronger for developed countries—precisely those with the greatest capacity to implement their obligations. Other key determinants of income inequality and treaty compliance—left partisanship, union density, workers’ rights, and democracy—do not systematically condition the effects of ICESCR membership. The ICESCR is therefore quite effective in reducing inequality, an outcome likely explained by renewed global attention to socioeconomic rights during the neoliberal era.