Peer-Reviewed Articles (8)

Political Science

(1) Rana, Sameer S.J.B.,* and Kelebogile Zvobgo. "Safeguarding Truth: Supporting Children's Participation at Truth Commissions." Forthcoming in 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) Zvobgo, Kelebogile, Wayne Sandholtz, and Suzie Mulesky. 2020. "Reserving Rights: Explaining Human Rights Treaty Reservations." International Studies Quarterly. Online First.

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

[Ungated] [Supplementary Materials] [Data]


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 such as regime type or the nature of the legal system. Rather, it appears that states weigh individual treaty obligations and calibrate their commitments accordingly.

(3) Zvobgo, Kelebogile, and Benjamin A.T. Graham. 2020. The World Bank as an Enforcer of Human Rights." Journal of Human Rights 19(4): 425–448.

  • 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

  • Watch an explainer video


[Ungated] [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 those 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, perhaps principally due to screening.

(4) Zvobgo, Kelebogile. 2020. "Demanding Truth: The Global Transitional Justice Network and the Creation of Truth Commissions." International Studies Quarterly 64(3): 609–625.

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

  • Listen to an interview from September 2020 on the Politics Politics Politics podcast

[Ungated] [Supplementary Materials] [Data]


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 (TJ) 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 representatives from international non-governmental organizations, interviews with Guatemalan non-governmental organization 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 share the burden—domestic members are essential to commission adoption, while international members are important for strong commission design.

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

  • Runner-Up for the Steven C. Poe Award from the Human Rights Section of the International Studies Association

  • 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] [Data


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 United States’ 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 toward, 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.

(6) 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.



(7) 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.

(8) Becker, Megan, and Kelebogile Zvobgo. 2020. “Smoothing the Pipeline: A Strategy to Match Graduate Training with the Professional Demands of Professorship.” Journal of Political Science Education 16(3): 357–368.




Faculty recruitment and PhD 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 a model 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 graduate students from historically underrepresented groups.

Book Chapters (1)

(1) Zvobgo, Kelebogile. "Research Labs: Concept, Utility, and Application." Forthcoming in Huddleston, R. Joseph, Thomas Jamieson, and Patrick James (Eds.). Handbook of Research Methods in International Relations. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Among the social sciences, the field of International Relations (IR) is distinct in its interdisciplinary character. The contents of this volume reflect the wide and ever expanding range of cross-field borrowing that characterizes IR. The volume unfolds in five parts. Part I focuses on the scope and methods of IR as a whole. Issues taken up include ongoing debates over the foundation of knowledge and existence. A range of perspectives, from that of systems theory through historical analysis, are incorporated in respective chapters. Part II delves into the unique vertical interactions that characterize IR work: the interplay between domestic and international institutions; state, sub-state, and nonstate actors; regime types and regime complexes.Part III is the practical section meant to answer researchers’ immediate questions on how to get started in research: How do I translate a theory into a test? How do I boil down a concept into an appropriate measure? What types of data and analysis will be most persuasive? Part IV provides the diverse toolkit used in modern IR research, covering regression, formal models, experiments, discourse analysis, case studies, and process tracing in a manner that bridges the perceived divide between quantitative and qualitative research. Finally, Part V evaluates research in a general sense, offering specific guidance to scholars on turning results into publications.

Under Review (5)

(1) Mulesky, Suzie, Wayne Sandholtz, and Kelebogile ZvobgoDo Human Rights Treaty Obligations Matter for Ratification?" Revise and resubmit at Journal of Conflict Resolution.

[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.

(2) Zvobgo, Kelebogile. "Stay the Hand of Justice? US Resistance to the International Criminal Court." For the peer-reviewed forum, Is "America First" Constructing America Irrelevant? Boyer, Mark A. and Cameron Thies, eds. Revise and resubmit at International Studies Perspectives.

The United States, a key architect of global governance institutions in the 20th century, has moderated its international engagement in the 21st century. In climate governance, the U.S. signed but did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, then acceded to but ultimately withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord. In trade, the U.S. entered but later abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And, in human rights, the U.S. failed to join core treaties like the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The U.S.'s withdrawal from these and other international regimes sparks the question: “Has 'America First' made America irrelevant?” I focus my answer to this question on the U.S.'s refusal to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), the apogee of the international criminal justice system that it helped build. I argue that, despite the efforts of anti-globalists and rule-of-law obstructionists like Donald Trump, the U.S. remains relevant in international criminal justice and may yet strengthen it, albeit unintentionally.

(3) 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. 

(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) Zvobgo, Kelebogile, and Claire Crawford. "Performing Truth? Examining Transitional Justice Practice in West Africa." Invited contribution for the volume, Right to Truth, Truth(s) through Rights: Mass Crimes Impunity and Transitional Justice. Garibian, Sévane, ed.

Transitional justice (TJ) measures have proliferated over the past half-century. Scholars cite this trend as evidence of an accountability norm that has spread around the globe. Yet, TJ’s spread does not necessarily imply norm diffusion and acceptance; it can also be explained by instrumental adaptation. Essentially, TJ adoption may reflect a desire to perform rather than a substantive commitment. We propose that the difference can be discerned as early as the design stage, with implications for TJ institutions’ operation, outputs, and outcomes. We conceptualize a spectrum: At the lower end, performance, TJ mechanisms are poorly designed, under-resourced, and under-supported by governments, and, at the higher end, substance, they are well designed, adequately resourced, and strongly supported by governments. To begin to disentangle substance and performance, we study truth commissions, generally the first TJ measures implemented after political violence, and we focus on Africa, home to one-third of global commissions. We analyze data on institutional design from the Varieties of Truth Commissions and produce case studies of three West African commissions. We find strong evidence of performative TJ: Many African governments have created commissions that are ill-equipped to uncover the truth. Consequently, they have served to (re)produce, rather than combat, impunity.

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

Why do established democracies adopt transitional justice (TJ) institutions like truth commissions? Three explanations dominate extant scholarly accounts of TJ adoption: (1) elite bargains, (2) power struggle between elites and the masses, and (3) external pressure from foreign governments, international organizations, and human rights non-governmental organizations. However, these explanations do not travel well beyond ideal-typical TJ settings, namely countries transitioning from civil conflict and autocratic rule. Drawing on experiences of TJ in two of the world’s longest-standing democracies—the US commission on wartime relocation and internment of Japanese Americans and the Canadian commission on Indian residential schools—this paper inductively builds theory about the relationship between interest groups’ access to legislative and judicial institutions in consolidated democracies and the delivery of TJ institutions. Following this inductive exercise, we trace how the commissions’ founding and design shaped their ability to produce a comprehensive account of abuses and influenced the implementation of their recommendations.

(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) 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 toward 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.

(5) 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.

(6) Byrne, Alexandra,** Gabrielle DeBelen,** Bilen Zerie,** and Kelebogile Zvobgo. "Producing Truth: Public Memory Projects in Post-Violence Societies."

How do societies remember historical political violence? This paper draws on an original dataset of nearly 200 proposed memorialization projects in 28 post-violence countries, from 1970 to 2018. These projects include installing monuments, developing memory museums, and establishing national days of remembrance. We develop a typology and inductively generate a theory of the political contests triggered by different memory project and, consequently, the likelihood of project implementation. We plan to test our theory through analysis of our new dataset and produce a case study of public memory production in South Africa since apartheid. We also plan to draw on archival documents, city and country maps, and interviews with citizens, human rights advocates, and government representatives.

*Master's student co-author

**Undergraduate student co-author

© 2020 by Kelebogile Zvobgo.