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  • 7/27/2019 U.S. Biased Information



    Nancy QianBrown University and HarvardAcademy

    David YanagizawaStockholm University and IIES


    This paper uses a country-level panel data set to test the hypothesis that the United States biasesits human rights reports of countries based on the latters strategic value. We use the difference

    between the U.S. State Departments and Amnesty Internationals reports as a measure of

    U.S. bias. For plausibly exogenous variation in strategic value to the U.S., we compare this

    bias between U.S. Cold War (CW) allies to non-CW allies, before and after the CW ended.

    The results show that allying with the U.S. during the CW significantly improved reports

    on a countrys human rights situation from the U.S. State Department relative to Amnesty

    International. (JEL: P16)

    1. Introduction

    It is not uncommon for governments, non-government organizations (NGOs),

    and private firms to justify major economic decisions based on perceived human

    rights situations in countries that they deal with. In June 2008, U.S. Commerce

    Secretary Carlos Gutierrez explained that the U.S. must continue its trade embargo

    on Cuba because the latter systematically brutalizes its people.1 For private

    firms, Blanton and Blanton (2007) found that Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)

    decisions are correlated with U.S. State Department reports on the levels of human

    rights violations. Using human rights as a determinant of private investment andeconomic policy is not, prima facie, a cause for particular concern. However,

    critics of the U.S. State Department have complained that it unfairly biases its

    human rights reports against countries that have opposing ideologies and favors

    Acknowledgments: We thank Abhijit Banerjee, Mikhail Golosov, Michael Kremer, TorstenPersson, David Stromberg, Jakob Svensson, and David Weil for their insights; the participants of theBrown Applied Micro Lunch, Harvard Development Faculty Lunch, IIES Lunch Seminar, BREAD-CIPREE in Montreal, and the European Economic Association meetings for useful comments; and

    Benjamin Feigenberg for excellent research assistance.E-mail addresses: Qian: nqian@brown.edu; Yanagizawa: yana@iies.su.se

    1. Letters to the Editor, Washington Post, Monday 9 June 2008; page A16.

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    Qian and Yanagizawa Strategic Determinants of U.S. Human Rights Reporting 447

    countries that are strategically valuable to the U.S.2 It is perhaps surprising then

    that there are no studies in political economy examining the accuracy of human

    rights reports and the determinants for the potential biases of reporting agencies.

    This study aims to fill this gap by estimating the extent to which the U.S. State

    Department biases reports of human rights violations of developing countries

    depending on their strategic value to the U.S.

    To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study in economics in addressing

    the important question of whether primary information sources on human rights

    strategically bias their reports.3 We build on numerous works in political science

    and international relations about the different factors associated with human rights

    reports. These are mostly qualitative. One exception is Poe, Carey, and Vazquezs

    (2001) study that examines factors that are correlated to the difference between

    Amnesty International and U.S. human rights reports. They find that relative to

    Amnesty International, the U.S. systematically reports its trading partners morefavorably and leftist regimes less favorably. However, they cannot distinguish

    the possibility that the U.S. is biased against certain countries from the possibility

    that those countries do behave worse and that the U.S. has better information

    than Amnesty International. A similar problem of omitted variables is faced by

    our study. Countries of strategic importance to the U.S. may actually have better

    human rights than other countries; and because they are U.S. allies, the U.S. has

    better access to information. In this case, the observation that alliance with the

    U.S. results in better human rights reports from the U.S. relative to other agencies

    will reflect superior information from the U.S. rather than strategic favoritismshown towards its allies.

    The principal empirical contribution of this study is to address these diffi-

    culties. Like Poe, Carey, and Vazquez (2001), we use human rights violations

    reports from Amnesty International as a measure of unbiased reports. And we

    interpret the difference between U.S. and Amnesty International reports as the

    U.S. bias. We use the Cold War (CW) and its abrupt end in 1990 for plausi-

    bly exogenous variation in strategic value to the U.S. During the CW, the U.S.

    and the U.S.S.R. competed for alliance of developing countries. This compe-

    tition effectively ended when the CW ended. Hence, we assume that the U.S.valued its allies more during the CW than afterwards. By comparing the U.S. bias

    for countries that allied themselves to the U.S. during the CW to those that do

    not, before and after the CW ended, we are able to measure the causal effect of

    2. For example, see Stohl and Carleton (1985) and Mitchell and McCormick (1988).

    3. The recent literature on media slant does not typically address the extent and the determinantsof biases of primary source information that feeds the commercial media. Recent findings by Eisenseeand Stromberg (2007) suggest that manipulating the media coverage of developing countries could

    have significant effects on the amount of aid that democratic governments such as the U.S. feelcompelled to give. In this study, we are concerned that reporting agencies can manipulate the qualityrather than the quantity of information covered by the commercial media.

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    448 Journal of the European Economic Association

    strategic value to the U.S. on reporting bias. Our measure of alliance with the

    U.S. is the fraction of votes that a country voted in agreement with the U.S. in the

    United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) during 19851989 on issues where

    the U.S. and U.S.S.R. disagreed. The differences-in-differences (DD) strategy

    addresses the problem that U.S. allies have better human rights in reality and the

    U.S. has better information for its allies. Note that our strategy does not require that

    Amnesty International be unbiased in its reports. We only require that Amnestys

    International bias to not change when the CW ends.

    We use a panel data set of 112 low-income countries during 19762005

    compiled from existing data on UNGA votes, human rights violations, and other

    country characteristics. The results show that the U.S. and Amnesty International

    have similar reports for countries not allied with the U.S., and they show that

    these countries on average do not change over time. For U.S. allies, Amnesty

    International reports them as similar to non-U.S. allies, with no changes overtime on average. In contrast, the U.S. reports them more favorably during the

    Cold War, but shows that they converge to non-allies immediately after the Cold

    War. Interestingly, there is no difference between U.S. and Amnesty International

    reports after the CW. The DD estimates show that if a country voted with the U.S.

    during to the Cold War 100% of the time, the U.S. under-reported human rights

    violations by 2.61 index points (roughly the differences between Zimbabwe and

    Sweden). Taken literally, this means that if Soviet-friendly Hungary had been as

    allied to the U.S. during the Cold War as U.S.-friendly Turkey, the U.S. would

    have under-reported its human rights by one index point relative to AmnestyInternational, bringing it to the same level as Sweden.

    The findings of this paper make the point that the strategic determinants

    of biases of primary information sources is an avenue that should be seri-

    ously researched. Combined with previous studies which find that U.S. strategic

    variables are key determinants to U.S. foreign aid (Alesina and Dollar 2000;

    Kuziemko and Werker 2006), our results suggest that the U.S. may manipulate its

    human rights reports in order to justify financially supporting its allies. Depend-

    ing on the extent to which firms and non-government organizations depend on

    the information provided by the U.S. State Department, this manipulation mayhave far-reaching economic consequences.

    This paper is organized as follows. Section 2 describes the background.

    Section 3 discusses the empirical strategy. Section 4 describes the data. Section

    5 shows the empirical results. Section 6 offers concluding remarks.

    2. Background

    2.1. Human Rights Reports

    The Country Reports on Human Rights Practices are submitted annually

    by the U.S. Department of State to the U.S. Congress. The reports cover

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    Qian and Yanagizawa Strategic Determinants of U.S. Human Rights Reporting 449

    internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set

    forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.4 Amnesty International is

    one of the only two international non-governmental organizations reporting on

    human rights abuses worldwide. (The other is Human Rights Watch, a U.S. based

    organization.) Official