© 2020 by Kelebogile Zvobgo.

Peer-Reviewed Articles (5)

Political Science

(1) Zvobgo, Kelebogile and Benjamin A.T. Graham. The World Bank as an Enforcer of Human Rights." Conditionally accepted, 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


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 and expertise. 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 our expectations about projects involving involuntary resettlement, and no support for our expectations about environmentally risky projects. We find that NGO support is strongly associated with complaint success, but cannot rule out the possibility that this effect is primarily the result of screening, rather than capacity and expertise.

(2) 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 a related article in The Washington Post


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.

(3) 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 in The Washington Post (with Shauna N. Gillooly)

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.



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

[Supplementary Appendix]

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.

(5) Becker, Megan L. 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 (4)

(1) Zvobgo, Kelebogile. "Demanding Truth: The Global Transitional Justice Network and the Creation of Truth Commissions." Revise and resubmit at International Studies Quarterly.

Since 1970, scores of states have established truth commissions to document historical 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 creation and design. I first propose that commissions are more likely to be created where network members can leverage information and moral authority over governments. I next suggest that commissions are more likely to possess strong powers when governments are advised by the International Center for Transitional Justice—the steward of TJ best practices. I evaluate these expectations through analysis of my novel Varieties of Truth Commissions dataset, interviews with INGO representatives, a focus group with domestic advocates from Argentina, and a focus group with ICTJ leadership and staff. My results indicate that network members burden share: domestic members are essential to commission creation while international members are important for strong commission design.

(2) Zvobgo, Kelebogile and Wayne Sandholtz. “Reserving Rights: Explaining Human Rights Treaty Reservations.” Revise and resubmit at International Studies Quarterly.

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

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 and domestic institutions increase compliance costs and policy adjustment costs. More specifically, we expect that (1) demanding provisions, i.e., provisions that create strong, precise obligations requiring domestic action, and (2) demanding domestic institutions, such as judicial independence, 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. However, we do not find a consistent relationship between demanding domestic institutions and reservations. Reservations do not appear to be driven purely by state-level characteristics as previous scholarship suggests. Our findings indicate that states weigh individual treaty obligations and calibrate their commitments accordingly.

(3) Rana, Sameer S.J.B** and Kelebogile Zvobgo. “Safeguarding Truth: Supporting Children's Testimony at Truth Commissions.”


Children are among the most vulnerable populations 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, and can be, 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 evaluate, 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 programs, and (3) measures for protection and psychosocial support. We find broad support for the theory and conclude by offering implications for scholars and practitioners.

(4) 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. 

Works in Progress (4)

(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 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 and with qualitative data from interviews with Georgian civil society actors and policy makers. We do not find that this framing improves support for ICC or domestic court actions. These results are important because they indicate that arguments about complementarity are unlikely to stem the tide of increasingly negative public opinion against international courts and international organizations, more generally.

(3) Solis, Jonathan and Kelebogile Zvobgo. “Defending the Watchdogs: Independent Courts and Media Freedom in Illiberal Regimes.”

What prevents governments from censoring newspapers, harassing journalists, or shutting down media outlets? Prior scholarship indicates that democratic governments respect, whereas autocratic governments repress, their watchdogs. However, existing studies neglect the institutional conditions under which even illiberal regimes may be restrained from assaulting the press. We argue that independent national courts restrain executives from attacking the media; however, this reductive effect wanes as the level of democracy rises and citizens can vote leaders out of office. To evaluate our expectations, we analyze panel data on government attacks on the media across 170 countries, from 1948 to 2012. We find strong support for the conditional effect of judicial independence on government attacks on the media. Independent courts decrease the likelihood of (1) censorship of newspapers, television, and radio and (2) threats and physical violence against journalists in countries with low to moderate levels of electoral democracy. We conclude with a discussion of implications for scholars of judicial politics, electoral politics, and human rights.

(4) Wu, J. Benjamin* and Kelebogile Zvobgo. "A Trend Toward Accountability? Human Rights, Development Finance, and Compliance Mechanisms."

Data collection completed.

*Undergraduate student co-author

**Master's student co-author