The United States’ “War on Terror” and involvement in Iraq have renewed questions concerning human rights agreements and international treaties. Do nations ever have the right to violate or ignore these agreements? What conditions are seen as justifying a breech? These were the questions addressed in a study by GIPGAP in 2005.
A sample of 518 participants (253 females and 218 males), at least 20 percent of whom were college students, completed the Personal and Institutional Rights to Aggression and Peace Scale (PAIRTAPS), which includes the following item: “Sometimes a country has the right to ignore international treaties or international human rights agreements.”
Participants were asked to indicate on a scale from 1 (totally disagree) to 7 (totally agree) the extent to which they agreed with the statement, and then to explain the reasoning behind their rating scale score.
Analyses revealed that most participants could be divided into two groups:
- Opposers—i.e., respondents who argued that governments do not have the right to violate or ignore agreements
- Justifiers—i.e., participants who argued governments sometimes do have such a right.
Of the 518 respondents, significantly more opposed violations than justified them, but opposers and justifiers used the same types of arguments to support their positions.
For example, both opposers and justifiers appealed to characteristics of treaties to justify their scores, with opposers arguing that agreements should be respected and justifiers arguing that agreements could be ignored if they were impractical, obsolete, or unjust.
Similarly, both opposers and justifiers emphasized the positive effects and the greater good that would come from adopting their position. For instance, one opposer wrote “These treaties are for the greater good of mankind,” while one justifier wrote “Sometimes you have to ignore your morals for the good of mankind.”
What do you think about these findings? Can you think of other situations where people argue passionately in favor of two opposing positions using the exact same type of argument—e.g., “My way is more moral/more intelligent/more practical, etc. than yours”?
Why might this be? What might be done to help opponents get beyond endless debate?
Kathie Malley-Morrison, Professor of Psychology
Note: This post is based on the study “Attitudes toward international treaties and human rights agreements” by Kyleen Hashim and Kathleen Malley-Morrison, published in the journal Peace Psychology, Spring/Summer 2007.