Sanctioning liberal democracies

by Chris Bertram on August 21, 2006

When I was at the ALSP conference in Dublin a while back, one of the more interesting papers was “Sanctioning Liberal Democracies” by Avia Pasternak of Nuffield College Oxford. Pasternak’s paper addresses the question of when it is appropriate to take action against liberal democracies for human rights violations. After all, as we are often being reminded, there are far worse violations of human rights going on elsewhere in the world. It might be thought that there are “double standards” here and that there is something wrong about giving special emphasis to, say, Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. Pasternak argues that we should hold democracies to higher standards. Central to her account is an idea of a community of democratic nations and the notion that they are, in some sense, involved in a collective project to promote democracy and human rights. When one member of such a community lets the side down, so to speak, by failing to live up to its commitments, it thereby undermines that collective project and can justifiably be the object of sanctions by the other members.

Pasternak builds her case via an analogy with a community of environmental activists:

bq. In order to see this consider again the group of environmental activists. Imagine that the members of this group discover that one of them has been violating one of the group’s norms. For example they find out that Anne no longer recycles, or stopped using energy saving light bulbs. Despite these particular violations Anne still sees herself as a member of the group, and takes pride in it. In this situation, it seems that other members of the group have the right to act in certain ways towards Anne, in order to convince her to change her ways: they do not have the right to break into her house and change the light bulbs themselves, but they may certainly chastise Anne for her behaviour, and express their anger and resentment. If all this does not work, they may restrict Anne’s access to the group. By proclaiming to be a member of the group, but behaving in a way that violates its norms, Anne is sending the message, to the group and in general, that not using energy saving light bulbs is a legitimate practice. Condemning Anne would preserve the integrity of the group and its loyalty to its values, and hopefully convince Anne that her behaviour as an environmentalist activist is wrong. As long as Anne sees herself as the member of the group she exposes herself to sanctions in cases where she violates the group norms.

bq. Going back to the case of the community of liberal democracies, we can argue that similarly, when the citizens and the government of a democratic political community behave in a way that seriously violates democratic values and practices, citizens and policy makers in other liberal democracies have the right not to tolerate this behaviour. The purpose of expressing discontent is both to strengthen the sender states’ faith in their values; and to convince the citizens and government of the target community to change their unjust ways, by pointing out the discrepancy between their behaviour and the democratic values.

You can read the whole paper via the “Nuffield College Working Papers in Politics”: site.

There’s definitely something right about Pasternak’s line, I think. One difficulty, though, is that if one looks at the collective project that many of these states are most saliently engaged in, it may not be best described – to put it mildly – as one involving the promotion of democracy and human rights (neoconservative fantasies notwithstanding)! But I don’t think that undermines her essential case. After all, these do publicly proclaim their allegiance to such standards, tend to apply them (imperfectly) internally, and are often signatories of international treaties and declarations supporting human rights and democracy. The idea that they are all members of a club, and may reasonably be held to the standards that the club endorses, seems to me to be one that has some mileage.

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August 21st Roundup at Milinda’s Questions
08.21.06 at 4:12 pm



Marc Mulholland 08.21.06 at 10:25 am

However, as anyone who has experience of political groups will know, a lot of time and effort can be wasted in ensuring the conformity to principle of its members when the priority should be to attack the ‘real enemy’ at large.

The environmentalists will turn inwards and become an obscure sect if they concentrate their energies on erring Annie, while down the road Mega-Corp continues to pollute rivers. Similarly, a narcissistic obsession with the purity of liberal democratic states’ human rights practices would tend to divert attention from the much more outrageous depredations of unashamedly tyrannical regimes.


SamChevre 08.21.06 at 10:25 am

I think the point is reasonable. However, the environmental group analogy points up one key issue.

It is perfectly reasonable for the “club” to sanction its members for not living up to club rules; however, this censure should be based on club rules that are consistently applied, or it will be perceived as unfair. If “Anne” is not recycling, and the club norm is to recycle, then censure is appropriate. If however, Anne (*who is fat and dresses oddly) is censured for not recycling, and Abi (who is thin and stylish) is not, the suspicion will arise that the real problem is NOT that Anne doesn’t recycle.

*Using “fat” as an example of something that is frequently stigmatized, but completely neutral relative to the group’s purposes.


Steve 08.21.06 at 10:28 am

There is something wrong with her analysis, too. It presumes that the purpose of a member of any group (liberal democracies, environmentalists) is to be a cool insider and be liked by the other members of the group, rather than to actually be good.
In the environmental group, we are to presume that 9 environmentalists all recycle lightbulbs, have compost heaps in the backyard, and ride bicycles. Ann merely chooses to ride bicycles. Meanwhile, 10 other neighbors let motor oil run down the street when they work on their cars, and use DDT to kill mosquitos in the backyard. If the 10 environmentalists sanction Ann until she adds a compost heap, are they really using their persuasive power to protect the environment, or just engaging in high school politics (Ann’s not cool enough for our group!).

In other words, objectively, Ann still is an environmentalist. So why sanction her? I suppose because she’s an easier target (the DDT and motor oil users might punch you in the nose, after all!.



Steve 08.21.06 at 10:30 am

It looks like three of us wrote exactly the same thing, using exactly the same vocabulary, at exaclty the same time.



Chris Bertram 08.21.06 at 11:11 am

But those are all purely pragmatic objections. As such they may have merit. Yes, it is damaging to a cause if it gets excessively focused on the rectitude of its members. But of course it is often equally damaging to a cause if non-members can point to the behaviour of members as evidence that they do not, in fact, uphold the principles they proclaim.

The essential point here is surely not the tactical judgement of when it is helpful and when counterproductive to punish insiders for backsliding. Rather it is that insiders are _liable_ to sanction on different grounds from outsiders: for undermining the cause, and not just for violating the objective standard.

If a democracy tortures people, we don’t just say “torturing people is wrong” – though it is. We _also_ say: “You’re a democracy and _as such_ you’re not supposed to torture people, and when you do, you give democracy a _bad name_ , and you weaken the cause of democracy in those places where it hasn’t taken hold.”


engels 08.21.06 at 11:15 am

It presumes that the purpose of a member of any group (liberal democracies, environmentalists) is to be a cool insider and be liked by the other members of the group, rather than to actually be good.

Where does it presume that, Steve?

Sam Chevre – I know a lot of Americans are fat and dress “oddly”, but I don’t think that’s got much to do with international opinion of Abu Graib.


engels 08.21.06 at 11:25 am

And I agree with Chris. There are lots of reasons why we should care more about human rights violations committed in the name of democracy. It tarnishes the democratic ideal. As the criminals claim to be democrats they are, for that reason, hypocrites as well as criminals, which makes them worse. If we don’t censure them we may all be accused of being hypocrites and this damages the cause of democracy everywhere.


David Sucher 08.21.06 at 11:39 am

I just wonder why this issue is being raised now. (No, I don’t really.) Sounds to me like a set-up for you know what.

Putting asided the transparent politics and taking it seriously as an interesting question, my concern is about the nature of this “community.” What are the obligations of “membership?” Is it or does it have elements of a solid mutual defense pact? Where all members are bound to come to the defesne of one member? Or is it a fair weather friend deal, where there is no committment to action except when the individual members find it convenient in terms of their own interest?

The moral right and ability to sanction turns on the degree and quality of the committments. If you don’t pay, you can’t play.


Marc Mulholland 08.21.06 at 11:41 am

The argument seems to be that democracies are under a greater obligation than non-democracies not to attack human rights.

Does this not undermine the concept of human rights as inalienable and respect for them morally binding equally on all regimes? This was the logic of the Helsinki accords, was it not?

Given that the average dictatorship justifies itself as a protector of core values, their use of torture or whatever can be seen as just as hypocritical as when democracies indulge (just a democracies can come up with justifications for human rights abuses just as compelling as tyrants’ – defence of the polity, security, order etc).

What do we gain by linking protection of human rights with a particular mode of governance – pluralist, liberal democracy? It goes against the empirical historical experience of the great advance in human rights coming in a pre-democratic age, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And it gives emergency governments latitude in abrogating human rights protection tout court when democratic liberties are ‘suspended’.


Steve 08.21.06 at 12:02 pm

“Despite these particular violations Anne still sees herself as a member of the group, and takes pride in it.”

This is the point: if the purpose of being an environmentalist is to be a member of the group (“Central to her account is an idea of a community of democratic nations”), then the sanctions are reasonable. But if the purpose of being an environmentalist is to protect the environment, then its counterproductive (not from a groupthink perspective, but from an environmental perspective). What happens when Ann says ‘to hell with you?’ Ann’s objectively doing a good job (even if its not as good as the other members of the group); the non-environmentally friendly people are still environmentally unfriendly, still dumping oil in the ground.

How long before Israel (and America) says ‘to hell with you’ to Europe?’



Chris Bertram 08.21.06 at 12:05 pm

The argument seems to be that democracies are under a greater obligation than non-democracies not to attack human rights.

Does this not undermine the concept of human rights as inalienable and respect for them morally binding equally on all regimes?

No, I think you are confused.

1. For any action X that I am obliged (or under a duty) not to do, there can be multiple sources of obligation. So, Marc, Smith shouldn’t punch Brown on the nose. If Smith has also promised Green not to punch Brown on the nose, then Green has two reasons (at least) for remonstrating with Smith if he does. If Blue, who hasn’t promised anyone anything, punches Brown on the nose, then he has done something he shouldn’t do (just as Smith has). But Green has one fewer thing to say to Blue than he has to Smith.

2. Even where there’s some action that everyone is equally bound not to perform, it doesn’t follow that A and B are equally _blameworthy_ when they perform that action.


Sebastian holsclaw 08.21.06 at 12:07 pm

“But those are all purely pragmatic objections.”

Why is it that pragmatic objections don’t count?


will u. 08.21.06 at 12:17 pm

“It might be thought that there are ‘double standards’ here and that there is something wrong about giving special emphasis to, say, Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t open this can of worms, but I always thought this way about “special” criticism of Israel, which purports to be, and is purported to be, a democratic, “civilized” nation. Human rights may be worse in neighboring Syria, for example, but Syrian human rights violations do not undermine the legitimacy of the very standpoint from which we criticize human rights violations. Secondly, since Israel is indeed a democratic nation, criticism is more likely to effect meaningful change. Of course we should pressure Syria as well, but it’s reasonable if that pressure is primarily through diplomatic channels and policy, rather than in the pages of the _New York Times_. .

“The argument seems to be that democracies are under a greater obligation than non-democracies not to attack human rights.”

The argument is that the Super Cool Liberal Democracy Club has to police its own membership if it wants to effectively promote its own values. I’m sure Islamist sheiks have seized upon Abu Ghraib as an example of Western hypocrisy.


SamChevre 08.21.06 at 12:19 pm


I wasn’t intending to make a pragmatic objection, but a normative one. To restate: if a group punishes its members for a certain action as violative of group interests, it is critical that such sanctions be applied evenly to all group members who engage in this action; otherwise, it is not clear that the action that purportedly led to the sanctions is actually the problem.

I’ll use a different example.

If a restaurant has a no-smoking sign, and will not permit any patron to smoke, it is reasonable to assume that “not smoking” is the goal. If, however, a restaurant allows all well-dressed patrons to smoke, but ejects poorly-dressed smokers, it does not appear that “no smoking” is actually the goal; it appears, rather, that the purported no smoking policy is a pretext for something else.


will u. 08.21.06 at 12:23 pm

…and by “sheiks” I mean “imams” :-P


Chris Bertram 08.21.06 at 1:06 pm

Why is it that pragmatic objections don’t count?

They most certainly do count, they just don’t exhaust the territory, that’s all.


M. Gordon 08.21.06 at 1:08 pm

Frankly, the point where I think this gedankenexperiment breaks down is here:

Condemning Anne would preserve the integrity of the group and its loyalty to its values, and hopefully convince Anne that her behaviour as an environmentalist activist is wrong.

Condemning Anne will do little to change her behavior. In most cases, it will piss Anne off and make her flip off the organization. And, if you think this is a peculiar property of irrational humans, and that states are more rational, please observe the current political climate here in the US of A towards Europe. This is hardly a minor point: if you want to change somebody’s behavior, criticism is almost never the way to achieve it, and any proposal that involves criticism as a means to evoke change is almost certainly doomed to failure.


Chris Bertram 08.21.06 at 1:09 pm

Sam Chevre. Do I think that all members of the “club” of liberal democracies should be held to the same high standards? Yes I do.


GW 08.21.06 at 1:15 pm

Environmentalism and the pursuits of Liberal Democracies are not like stamp collecting. A group of stamp collectors do not advance the whole of stamp collecting simply by becoming a group. At least, they advance it no more than if they remained lone wolf stamp collectors.

Environmentalism, like human rights and most other political activities, can be practiced much more effectively by a collective than by an individual. Thus, if Anne is truly a committed environmentalist, she will pursue membership in the group by adhering to its norms in order to advance her cause.


Donovan 08.21.06 at 1:19 pm

Sanctioning liberal democracies makes far more sense than sanctioning pariah rogues – and is far more likely to have useful effects, as powerful groups in every liberal democracy are highly dependent upon free and open trade and will respond to the mere threat of sanctions more than a pariah will to decades of actually imposed sanctions.


abb1 08.21.06 at 1:59 pm

Exactly, free and open trade – that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it. I highly doubt that a liberal democracy is likely to sanction anyone – liberal democracy or not – who has high enough ROI or buys a lot of stuff from it. Money makes the world go ’round. Money, not liberal clubs.

Well, if a liberal-minded group of citizens decide to organize a boycott or publicity campaign – that may help and perhaps eventually even force their government to do something, I suppose. But it’s not easy.


james 08.21.06 at 2:23 pm

There are three additional problems. Using Anne again as an example.

1) Different standards of implementation. Anne only recycles paper and not plastic. The group recycles both.

2) Disagreement of standards. Anne believes in using cloth diapers. The group uses disposable diapers. (Note: this was chosen because environmentally speaking it is a wash)

3) Disagreement of objectives. Anne does not car pool but does have solar panels her house. The group car pools but does not use solar panels their houses.


SamChevre 08.21.06 at 3:32 pm

Chris Bertram,

I’m quite confident that you would hold all democracies to the same standards; I am less certain that the actual implementation of any “let’s sanction badly-behaving democracies” would actually accomplish that.


Ben 08.21.06 at 4:18 pm

I’m not sure what is doing the work in the idea of a ‘club’. Just because a group of random people each individually consider themselves environmentalists, doesn’t mean they need share the same concerns or standards. (E.g. one may like nuclear as an alternative to fossil fuel, another dislike it; one car pool, another cycle)

What seems to do the work in the Anne case is that there is some kind of group, however loose and informal; so it seems if the analogy is to hold it only applies to groups that have some kind of formal structure and voluntary membership (along the lines of EU, UN, etc), rather than a group that one becomes a member of simply by being (or becoming) a liberal democracy.

After all, the Anne example wouldn’t work if other red-heads pressurised her into doing something they all did on the grounds she should live up to the standards expected of red-heads…


derrida derider 08.21.06 at 6:10 pm

The main pragmatic reason why we should object most loudly against democratic governments who violate human rights is simply because they are democratic – that is, we can make a difference, especially if they are our own government. IOW the marginal return (in terms of reducing torture) is higher to protesting against our own “anti-terror” practices rather than against Syria’s.

This is an argument that makes entirely tolerable our hypocrisy in protesting against the lesser rather than the greater offences.


Tom T. 08.21.06 at 11:33 pm

What sort of sanctions are you envisioning, Chris?


Sebastian Holsclaw 08.21.06 at 11:34 pm

“This is an argument that makes entirely tolerable our hypocrisy in protesting against the lesser rather than the greater offences.”

And like attending UN meetings on genocide it does wonders for the conscience without doing much for the reality?

I think your argument makes sense for small marginal differences in treatment (say waterboarding vs. electro-shock to the genitals) but not so much for greater differences (say using faked menstrual blood vs. electro-shock to the genitals) and really bad for vastly greater differences (say leaving prisoners handcuffed on the plane from Afghanistan to Gitmo vs. electro-shock to the genitals).


alex 08.22.06 at 4:19 am

Chris Bertram writes, But those are all purely pragmatic objections…[pragmatic objections] most certainly do count, they just don’t exhaust the territory, that’s all.

However, the original argument was largely pragmatic as well – reprimanding Anne is useful because it would “preserve the integrity of the group and its loyalty to its values, and hopefully convince Anne.” The latter two are certainly pragmatic explanations. Which is why if pragmatic objections don’t exhaust the territory, they certainly exhaust most of it.


David Sucher 08.22.06 at 5:47 am

“Imagine that the members of this group discover that one of them has been violating one of the group’s norms”

Pasternak’s example of environmentalists is a poor one. It has little to do with the anarchy of the international order in which the mutual obligations between liberal democracies are vague or non-existent. There is no “group” when it comes to liberal democracies. Admiring John Locke or reading the NYRB does not create a group. Sanctions within the group for violating norms suggests a level of organization among liberal democracies which does not exist.

The UN of course cannot be offered as an example of a “group” as it includes many horrendous states and to create a tiered system within it which distinguishes between liberal democracies and “the rest” is an interesting idea, and just that. The European Union might be a “group” and of course it is already formally organized (so I understand) with all sorts of internal sanctions between its members and clear responsibilities (though I don’t know to what degree there is any mutual defense obligation.)

Her analogy of an environmenatl group to liberal democracies fails at the threshold because so far as I can see, liberal democracies do not form any group within which there are agreed-to norms. Putting it another way, norms by themselves do not create a “group” with the moral much less practicallauthority to sanction.


Sam Clark 08.22.06 at 9:22 am

Changing the subject a little: Pasternak makes a nice judo move against some anti-cosmopolitan liberals. For social liberals, shared history and values create political communities, and therefore create moral claims between compatriots – call this the moral significance of community. Pasternak shows that, on their own premises, such liberals have reason to think that there are moral claims (rights, obligations, etc.) which cross the borders of formal political communities (let’s call them states). Liberal democracies share history and values, and therefore, given the moral significance of community, there is a community of liberal democracies with moral claims on one another. I think that once we let the moral-significance-of-community genie out of the bottle, we’re forced towards much stronger obligations than Pasternak wants to admit, given the global nature of much community. The response from the social liberal might be something along the lines of David Sucher in no.30: argue that only very specific forms of formal community have moral significance, and that the links between liberal democracies aren’t of the right kind. (Bias admitted: I know Pasternak slightly, having met her when she gave a draft of this paper in York.)


Avia Pasternak 08.22.06 at 10:57 am

Thanks for the very interesting and stimulating comments. I address at least some of them in the paper, but I would like to make the following points:

Pragmatic concerns do not exhaust the debate, as many objections to international sanctions, to which I reply in the paper, are not pragmatic. One is the ‘lack of right’ objection, according to which interference in the affairs of a political community violates the principle of democratic autonomy. The second is the ‘lack of obligation’ objection, according to which states are not obligated to incur the high costs of sanctions, in light of their overriding obligations to their own citizens.

Consistency in the treatment of unjust liberal democracies is important. However, I would like to draw attention to an interesting argument made by Chris Brown in this context. In his ‘Selective Humanitarianism: in Defense of Inconsistency’ (in Ethics and Foreign Intervention Chatterjee and Scheid (eds.)), Brown argues that we cannot always follow strict rules when making moral decisions and that ‘sound moral judgement always respects the detailed circumstances and specific kinds of cases’. This recommendation can and should be applied to cases of sanctioning unjust liberal democracies; presumably, no two such cases would be identical.

Some comments referred to the problem of picking on Anne even though she is more environmentally conscious than other people on the whole. I have several replies to this objection:
a. Contrary to Steve and M. Gordon (comments 10 and 17), I think Anne is not so likely to say ‘the hell with you’ to her environmentalist friends. If she values the group’s ethos, and sees herself as an environmentally committed person, a rejection of the group’s ideals would be quite hard for her. Instead, it’s likely that she will come to realise her behaviour is not in line with her own values.

b. argument (a) can ground an obligation for liberal democracies to ‘pick on’ other liberal democracies: if liberal democracies have the unique capacity to convince an unjust liberal democracy to change its ways (a capacity which arguably they do not have with regard to non-democracies, at least within the limits of reasonable costs), then this capacity may create the obligation to do so.
c. The fact that Anne is more environmentally conscious than average (comment 1) does not give her the right to commit environmental harms, or to demand that the group ignores these harms because more serious harms are committed elsewhere. Similarly, a democratic political community does not have the right to demand that its minor violations of human rights be ignored, because worse violations are committed elsewhere. However I concede that it might be the case that if we have limited resources and can either sanction Democracy A for minor human rights violations or non-democracy B for gross human rights violations, we may reach the conclusion, other things being equal, that the latter takes precedence.


nihil obstet 08.22.06 at 2:27 pm

A morally-committed group wants to convince those who disagree with it to adopt its beliefs and actions. Hypocrisy undercuts this effort. If Anne drives around in a Hummer, the non-environmental neighbors feel justified in polluting practices. Tyrannies are maintained on the belief that a dissenter is a sufficient threat that his/her human rights are subordinate to state security. When liberal democracies violate human rights, they justify the tyrannical belief in state security trumping human rights. That helps continue the violation of human rights.


alex 08.23.06 at 1:56 am

It seems there is some disconnect between the paper and the discussion here: the paper rests on the idea of a community of some liberal democracies “created by such factors as geographical proximity, shared history, shared religion, and shared systems of values and practices.” The discussion here, on the other hand, has mostly taken place in regard to democracies generally.

It does not seem that the argument generalizes to just plain democracies, for the very reason that Chris Bertram mentioned in the above post – some countries which have free and fair elections do not see themselves as being part of a project to advance democracy, do not share systems of values and practices with other democracies, and do not value the group ethos. Bertram mentions that nevertheless many democracies “publicly proclaim their allegiance to such [democratic and human rights] standards.” I don’t think this quite does it – there is a lot of room for completely different policies and beliefs within the notion of “human rights” and some democracies may in fact be committed to the project of a less expansive sets of human rights.


Chris Bertram 08.23.06 at 2:25 am

Well I think there’s something right about that, Alex, in that one big question about the paper has to be whether anything like a transnational community of liberal democracies can be said to exist, however informally. I’m inclined to say that it does, but that just having an election or two doesn’t get you “membership”. We might want to notics that representatives of offender nations (and their allies) who help themselves to rhetoric about solidarity among democracies are thereby making tacit reference to such a community and thereby invoke the possibility of being criticized themselves for failing to live up to its (implicit) standards.

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