Human rights advocates and international lawyers view international agreements and other international norms as important tools to improve human rights around the world. This Article explains that, contrary to widely held beliefs, international human rights norms are not a one-way street. Norms capable of generating improved behavior in poorly performing states will also tend to exert a downward pull on high-performing states. This downward pull leads to what we term “human rights backsliding” — a tendency for high-performing states to weaken their domestic human rights regimes relative to prior behavior or relative to what they would otherwise have done.
The theory of backsliding is a novel one, and so we introduce it with several real-world examples. In order to make the theory, its assumptions, and its consequences as explicit as possible, we also provide a formal model of backsliding. We then explain how an understanding of human rights backsliding helps explain state behavior that is otherwise puzzling. We explore some of the implications of backsliding for the design of international agreements and we consider strategies for advocates seeking to advance the cause of human rights internationally.