Peer-Reviewed Articles (7)

Political Science

(1) Zvobgo, Kelebogile, Wayne Sandholtz, and Suzie Mulesky. "Reserving Rights: Explaining Human Rights Treaty Reservations." Forthcoming in International Studies Quarterly.

  • Winner of the 2019 Best Paper Award from the Human Rights Section of the American Political Science Association

[Supplementary Materials]

International relations scholarship has made significant strides in explaining how states design treaty obligations and why they accept treaty commitments. However, far less attention has been paid to factors that may influence states’ modification of their treaty obligations via reservations. We theorize that states will be more likely to enter reservations when treaty obligations increase compliance costs and policy adjustment costs. More specifically, we expect that demanding provisions, i.e., provisions that create strong, precise obligations requiring domestic action, will enhance the likelihood of reservation. To test our theory, we exploit an original dataset that codes reservations at the provision (treaty-article-paragraph) level for the ten core international human rights treaties. Consistent with our expectations, we find that states are more likely to enter reservations on more demanding treaty provisions. In contrast to prior studies, our results indicate that reservations are not driven purely by state-level characteristics like regime type and the nature of the legal system. Rather, it appears that states weigh individual treaty obligations and calibrate their commitments accordingly.

(2) Zvobgo, Kelebogile. "Demanding Truth: The Global Transitional Justice Network and the Creation of Truth Commissions." Forthcoming in International Studies Quarterly. 

  • See a related article from June 2020 in The Washington Post

[Supplementary Materials]

Since 1970, scores of states have established truth commissions to document political violence. Despite their prevalence and potential consequence, the question of why commissions are adopted in some contexts, but not in others, is not well understood. Relatedly, little is known about why some commissions possess strong investigative powers while others do not. I argue that the answer to both questions lies with domestic and international civil society actors, who are connected by a global transitional justice network and who share the burden of guiding commission adoption and design. I propose that commissions are more likely to be adopted where network members can leverage information and moral authority over governments. I also suggest that commissions are more likely to possess strong powers where international experts, who steward TJ best practices, advise governments. I evaluate these expectations by analyzing two datasets in the novel Varieties of Truth Commissions Project, interviews with INGO representatives, interviews with Guatemalan NGO leaders, a focus group with Argentinian human rights advocates, and a focus group at the International Center for Transitional Justice. My results indicate that network members burden share: domestic members are essential to commission adoption while international members are important for strong commission design.

(3) Zvobgo, Kelebogile and Benjamin A.T. Graham. The World Bank as an Enforcer of Human Rights." Forthcoming in Journal of Human Rights.

  • Winner of the 2019 Best Paper Award from the Human Rights Section of the International Studies Association

  • Winner of the 2018 Best Faculty Paper Award from the West Region of the International Studies Association


[Supplementary Materials] [Data]

Since the 1990s, the World Bank's Inspection Panel and Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman (CAO) have responded to hundreds of human rights complaints filed by or on behalf of project-affected communities.  Yet, little is known about complaint outcomes and factors that enhance the likelihood of complaint success. We theorize that complaints involving indigenous communities, or pertaining to involuntary resettlement and severe environmental impacts, will be more likely to result in a favorable outcome due to the Bank's novel policies governing these issues. We also expect that NGO-supported communities are more likely to succeed due to organizational capacity, expertise, and advocacy. We evaluate these expectations using an original dataset of Inspection Panel and CAO complaints (1993-2017). We find strong support for our expectations about indigenous communities, weak support for projects involving involuntary resettlement, and no support for environmentally risky projects. NGO support is strongly associated with complaint success, may be principally due to screening. 

(4) Zvobgo, Kelebogile. 2019. “Human Rights versus National Interests: Shifting US Public Attitudes on the International Criminal Court.International Studies Quarterly 63(4): 1065–1078.

  • Winner of the 2018 Best Paper Award from the Social Sciences Division of the USC Graduate Research Symposium

  • See three related articles from April 2019, March 2020, and June 2020 in The Washington Post


[Ungated] [Supplementary Materials

The United States—an architect of international criminal tribunals in the twentieth century—has since moderated its involvement in international justice. Striking to many observers is the US’s failure to join the International Criminal Court—the institutional successor to the tribunals the nation helped install in Germany, Japan, the Balkans, and Rwanda. Interestingly, the US public’s support of the ICC increases yearly despite the government’s ambivalence about, and even hostility towards, the Court. Drawing on the US foreign policy public opinion literature, I theorize that human rights frames increase support for joining the ICC among Americans, whereas national interest frames decrease support. I administer an online survey experiment to evaluate these expectations and find consistent support. I additionally test hypotheses from the framing literature in American Politics regarding the effect of exposure to two competing frames. I find that participants exposed to competing frames hold more moderate positions than participants exposed to a single frame but differ appreciably from the control group. Crucially, I find that participants’ beliefs about international organizations’ effectiveness and impartiality are equally, if not more, salient than the treatments. Thus, the ICC may be able to mobilize support and pressure policy change by demonstrating effectiveness and impartiality.

(5) Zvobgo, Kelebogile. 2019. Designing Truth: Facilitating Perpetrator Testimony at Truth Commissions." Journal of Human Rights. 18(1): 92–110.

  • Distinction in the Senior Exercise (International Relations), Pomona College

  • See a related article from February 2019 in The Washington Post 

[Ungated] [Supplementary Materials

Truth commissions aim to promote transparency, accountability, and reconciliation by compiling detailed narratives of political violence. To achieve this end, both victims and perpetrators of abuses must testify. Yet, little is known about how commissions can be designed to facilitate perpetrator testimony. This article develops a theory of perpetrator participation in truth commissions, with a focus on institutional design. The article then evaluates the effectiveness of four design features—amnesties, subpoena powers, dual-party agreements, and spiritual frameworks—in facilitating perpetrator testimony in the truth commissions in Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Timor-Leste. The analysis indicates that the theoretical constructs developed are present, functional, and influential for perpetrator participation in the three commissions. And, while no individual design feature is essential, the case studies reveal that perpetrator participation may not be forthcoming without a robust dual-party agreement and/or a resonant spiritual framework. This underscores the importance of normative foundations for perpetrators’ engagement with commissions. Crucially, though advantageous features may be present, the criteria required for them to function may not be met, resulting in no effect or a negative effect on participation.



(6) Becker, Megan, Benjamin A.T. Graham, and Kelebogile Zvobgo. "The Stewardship Model: An Inclusive Approach to Undergraduate Research." Forthcoming in PS: Political Science & Politics.

[Supplementary Materials]

The field of social science lacks diversity, in both academia and industry. One cause is the "pipeline problem." Too few students from diverse backgrounds—notably, first-generation college students and students of color—pursue social science undergraduate and graduate degrees. And, those who do are disproportionately likely to exit their respective fields. In response to these twin institutional failures, we have developed a new model of mentored undergraduate research experiences, the Stewardship Model of Mentoring, designed to enhance the presence and status of social scientists from diverse backgrounds through targeted recruitment, technical training, and multi-level mentoring. In this article, we detail the theory and practice of the Stewardship Model within our collaborative research laboratory, and we invite scholars to join a newly-piloted multi-institution survey effort to assess the effects of this and other undergraduate research experiences on the attitudes, skill development, and psycho-social well-being of students from a range of backgrounds.

(7) Becker, Megan and Kelebogile Zvobgo. 2019. “Smoothing the Pipeline: A Strategy to Match Graduate Training with the Professional Demands of Professorship.” Journal of Political Science Education. Online First.



Faculty recruitment and Ph.D. student placement have become increasingly competitive over the past decade. The emphasis of graduate student training—research above all else—often means a difficult transition into the professoriate, where expectations for faculty are broadened to include teaching and service. In response, we offer an example of an organizational structure for research in which: (1) graduate students gain opportunities to collaborate on research with faculty, (2) teach in their areas of expertise, and (3) begin their mentoring careers. We argue that these structures will help ‘smooth the pipeline’ between graduate school and academic jobs and will be particularly helpful in supporting Ph.D. students from historically underrepresented groups.

Under Review (5)

(1) Rana, Sameer S.J.B** and Kelebogile Zvobgo. "Safeguarding Truth: Supporting Children's Participation at Truth Commissions." Revised and resubmitted to Journal of Human Rights.


Children are among the most vulnerable groups during periods of repression and conflict, and their exposure to violence can have long-term effects on their development, including how they manage and express feelings of fear, anger, and shame. Likewise, children’s engagement in subsequent transitional justice processes, such as truth commissions, can shape their development and that of their nations. Surprisingly, little scholarship considers how commissions have been designed to effectively and responsibly secure children’s involvement, notably their testimonies. We develop a design-based theory of children’s participation in commissions. We then probe, through case studies of the commissions in South Africa, Timor-Leste, and Sierra Leone, the influence of three institutional features on children’s participation: (1) provisions for children in the mandate, (2) targeted outreach, and (3) measures for protection and psychosocial support. We find broad support for the theory and conclude by discussing the implications of the evidence for scholars and practitioners.

(2) Solomon, Daniel and Kelebogile Zvobgo. “Co-Opting Truth: Explaining Quasi-Judicial Institutions in Authoritarian Regimes.”


What accounts for the creation, design, and outcomes of quasi-judicial institutions in autocracies? Prior research demonstrates that autocrats co-opt  electoral, legislative, and judicial institutions to curtail  opponents' power and curry international patrons' favor. However, scholarship on co-optation neglects quasi-judicial mechanisms, such as truth commissions, that can be useful for arranging a political narrative that bolsters a leader's image while undermining his rivals. In this paper, we formalize the concept of autocratic truth commissions—which account for one-third of truth commissions globally—and develop and test a novel theory of their origins, inputs, and outputs. We theorize that autocrats establish self-investigating commissions in response to threats to their symbolic authority and install victor's commissions in response to threats to survival. We further argue that these two commission types take on different institutional forms and produce different outcomes. Self-investigating commissions are afforded weak investigative powers and produce reports that obscure basic facts, such as  the extent of abuses and the parties responsible. Meanwhile, victor's commissions are granted strong investigative powers and culminate in accurate reports of rivals' responsibility for abuses. We evaluate these expectations through comparative case studies of two autocratic truth commissions in Uganda, and find strong support. 

(3) Mulesky, Suzie, Wayne Sandholtz, and Kelebogile ZvobgoDo Human Rights Treaty Obligations Matter for Ratification?"


[Supplementary Materials]

Why do some human rights treaties receive rapid and near universal commitment from states while others take decades for the majority of states to ratify? We analyze new data that code every provision of ten global human rights treaties for the strength and precision of the obligations they contain. We classify obligations that are strong, precise, and that require domestic action as “demanding.” We hypothesize that treaties containing more of these demanding obligations would be seen as more costly to ratify because they imply potentially greater policy adaptation or compliance costs. Event history analyses are consistent with that hypothesis. The addition of 15 demanding treaty obligations decreases the likelihood of ratification by over 20 percent, similar to the effect of moving from democracy to autocracy. This effect is consistent when controlling for various treaty, state, and global level factors that may also influence a state’s decision to ratify.

(4) Solis, Jonathan A. and Kelebogile Zvobgo. “Defending the Watchdogs: How Citizens and Courts Protect the Press.”


[Supplementary Materials]

A free and independent press monitors government actions, broadcasts public grievances, and facilitates debate and dissent among citizens. Because of this, some governments run interference – censoring newspapers, harassing journalists, and shutting down media outlets. But, other governments do not. What explains this? We propose that executives decide to repress or to respect the press based on the sanctions they anticipate from two important constituencies: courts and citizens. We expect that attacks are less likely where courts can make adverse rulings and where citizens can vote leaders out of office. In addition, we suggest that these constraints can function as substitutes. Essentially, the reductive effect of judicial independence wanes as the level of electoral democracy rises, making courts vital to protecting journalists in less-democratic systems. We evaluate these expectations using panel data on government attacks on the media in 175 countries, from 1949 to 2016, and find strong support.

(5)  Irgil, Ezgi, Anne-Kathrin Kreft, Myunghee Lee, Charmaine Willis, and Kelebogile Zvobgo. “Field Research: A Graduate Student's Guide.”

What is field research? Is it just for qualitative scholars? Must it be done in a foreign country? How much time in the field is “enough”? A lack of disciplinary consensus on what constitutes “field research” or “fieldwork” has left graduate students in political science under-informed and thus under-equipped to leverage site-intensive research to address issues of interest and urgency across the subfields. Uneven training in doctoral programs has also left early-career researchers under-prepared for the logistics of fieldwork – from developing networks and effective sampling strategies to building respondents’ trust – and related issues of funding, physical safety, mental health, research ethics, and crisis response. Based on the experience of five junior scholars, this article offers answers to crucial questions that graduate students puzzle over, often without the benefit of others’ “lessons learned.” This practical guide engages theory and praxis, in support of an epistemologically and methodologically pluralistic discipline.

Works in Progress (6)


(1) Far, Nastaran*, Hailey Robertson*, and Kelebogile Zvobgo. "Confronting Truth: Investigating Transitional Justice in Consolidated Democracies."

Why do Western democracies adopt transitional justice (TJ) mechanisms such as truth commissions? Scholarship suggests that large-scale political transformation, namely conflict termination or regime change, is a prerequisite for TJ implementation. However, truth commissions have also been created in established democracies. To respond to this puzzle, we evaluate through case studies if, and to what extent, existing explanations of truth commission adoption—notably, elite bargains and civil society mobilization—were determining factors for the use of truth commissions in two of the world's longest-standing democracies: the United States and Canada. We find that the elite bargain hypothesis is critically limited in its explanatory power across the two cases. Moreover, the nature and extent of civil society mobilization in these two cases differs considerably from other truth commission experiences. In the US, the commission examining Japanese internment was the product of civil society groups simultaneously lobbying national legislators and filing high-profile lawsuits for redress. Meanwhile, the Canadian commission investigating the Indian residential school system was the product, rather than the cause, of legal challenges against the government. Following this analysis, we explore how the two commissions’ founding and design shaped their effectiveness in rendering an exhaustive narrative on the past, as well as the implementation of their recommendations. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings for other democracies that have yet to confront the past.

(2) Zvobgo, Kelebogile and Claire Crawford. "Spreading Truth? Evaluating Diffusion of the Transitional Justice Norm in West Africa."  Invited contribution for the volume, Right to Truth, Truth(s) through Rights: Mass Crimes Impunity and Transitional Justice (Sévane Garibian, Ed.)

Constructivist accounts of international politics suggest that countries adopt human rights practices like transitional justice (TJ) because there exists an international norm that has spread across borders and over time. Scholarship in this vein has taken spatial and temporal clustering of institutions like trials and truth commissions as evidence of diffusion of the TJ norm. However, existing studies have focused on institutional adoption and neglected institutional design. This is a striking omission, as strong or weak institutional design can indicate states' underlying commitments to truth and justice. Moreover, institutional design matters for institutional performance. In response, we produce the first systematic study of truth commission institutional design in Africa, a region that boasts one-third of commissions globally. We leverage quantitative data from the Varieties of Truth Commissions Project to reveal significant heterogeneity in the investigative powers afforded to commissions, even when we consider commissions in countries that are the most geographically proximate and that were implemented around the same time. This variation suggests that, while commissions have spread across the Continent, and indeed the globe, the TJ norm is only weakly held. Indeed, many governments have established commissions that are ill-equipped to construct a comprehensive account of past abuses, including identifying the individuals and institutions most responsible. Consequently, many commissions in Africa have produced, rather than combatted, impunity. Case studies of commissions in three West African countries, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo, elaborate on the quantitative evidence of uneven and incomplete diffusion of the TJ norm.

(3) Zvobgo, Kelebogile and Stephen Chaudoin. "Complementarity and Public Views on Overlapping Domestic and International Courts."

A growing regime complex of domestic and international legal institutions have overlapping jurisdictions for violations of international law. In many contexts, the jurisdiction of the international court is restricted by the principle of “complementarity": the international court can only intervene in countries where governments have proved unwilling or unable to conduct investigations or plaintiffs have exhausted domestic remedies. We ask whether complementarity (a) increases support for international courts’ actions and (b) increases support for domestic remedies as a way to forestall international court action. International courts, especially the International Criminal Court, rely heavily on an affirmative answer to both questions. We assess these predictions with a survey experiment about the ICC in the Republic of Georgia with qualitative data from interviews with civil society actors and policy makers. We do not find that this particular framing improves support for ICC or domestic court actions. These results indicate that arguments about complementarity are unlikely to reduce negative public opinion against international courts and international organizations, more generally. We now plan to replicate the results with a survey experiment about the ICC in Afghanistan, where U.S. and non-U.S. forces and intelligence are suspected of war crimes.

(4) Zvobgo, Kelebogile"Governing Truth: NGOs, Burden Sharing, and Transitional Justice."

Is transitional justice (TJ) a domestic or international institution, and who governs it? Much research describes it as a set of domestic accountability processes. Yet, the norm and practice of TJ have been developed, institutionalized, and normalized by an international community of experts and non-governmental organizations. Previous research also suggests that governments lead TJ. Yet, it is first and foremost for victims: they are the most interested parties and have the most to gain. In addition, TJ is rarely post-violence governments' primary objective and, in some instances, governments see it as a threat to regime stability. I build on these fragmented, if not contradicting, perspectives and propose that TJ is neither a domestic or international institution but a transnational institution. Further, it is not driven by governments but by a global network of civil society actors who work to advance the interests of victims. I leverage a novel dataset and qualitative data from archival research and interviews with human rights groups, government officials, and United Nations representatives in Guatemala to show that civil society actors inspire TJ measures and use their outputs – for example, truth commission reports – to pursue and implement further measures. 

(5) Scott, Jamil S., Daniel Solomon, and Kelebogile Zvobgo. "Racial Violence and Public Attitudes Toward Justice."

  • See two related articles from June 2019 in The Conversation and June 2020 in The Washington Post

How do individuals develop their views on justice for political violence? While some scholarship demonstrates that exposure to violence shapes political attitudes—for example, decreasing political tolerance and diminishing trust in institutions—little work considers how violence in the past shapes attitudes towards justice in the present. We propose that historical violence frames improve support for a range of justice measures, including apologies, memorials, and reparations. In addition, we argue that contemporary legacy frames, which situate past violence alongside present violence, further improve support. We evaluate these expectations with a survey experiment about racial-terror lynchings in the US state of Maryland. We additionally leverage qualitative data from life histories with descendants of lynching victims and elite interviews with civil society actors and policy makers. Our results are important because they describe the conditions under which Marylanders and Americans, more generally, support restitution for historical wrongdoing.

(6) Chaudhry, Suparna and Kelebogile Zvobgo"Gender Violence and Public Attitudes Toward Punishment."


What is the appropriate remedy for gender violence? Prior scholarship has examined government policy but neglected public opinion. In particular, previous research has not evaluated the public's sensitivity to effectiveness and human rights arguments made by human rights non-governmental organizations (HROs). To answer this question, we leverage a survey experiment on capital punishment for the crime of rape. While the death penalty is conventionally regarded as an ineffective deterrent and inconsistent with international human rights principles, it is used in many countries around the world to punish serious crimes like rape. We expect that individuals who are presented with effectiveness and human rights arguments will be less likely to support the death penalty as a punishment for rape and more likely to support alternatives like imprisonment and victim compensation. Our results are important because they indicate the extent to which HROs can sway the public toward effective, human rights-compatible policies.

*Undergraduate student co-author

**Master's student co-author

© 2020 by Kelebogile Zvobgo.