Security Threats and Fragile Commitments: Stress-Testing Public Support for Human Rights at Home and Abroad

Research question/goal: 

One bulwark against democratic backsliding is a strong citizen commitment to defending human rights. But how strong is that commitment among European publics? This project offers a detailed two-part answer. First, it maps public attitudes to human rights across the continent with a novel cross-national survey in 25 European countries, exploring the depth and strength of these attitudes as well as broader public understandings and expectations of human rights. Second, with a detailed experimental investigation in two major European countries (Germany and the UK), we stress-test public support against security threats and explore how commitment to rights can be strengthened. Our experiments are embedded into a major two-wave panel survey. In the first stage of the experiment, we distinguish between a political threat posed by a potential terrorist attack from either a far right or an Islamist group and a non-political threat posed by Covid-19. We vary the source and content of the threat message, testing hypotheses about the role of social media and inflammatory rhetoric in driving threat perceptions. In the second stage, we analyse whether and how this heightened sense of insecurity affects attitudes towards human rights. A further experiment tests whether messages calling either for strengthened security or for a defence of human rights affect support for these rights. We focus on attitudes towards two civil liberties that are key to a lively democracy but have increasingly come under pressure: freedom of the press and right to assembly.

This is a joint project with Robert Johns (University of Essex) and Katrin Paula (Technische Universität München).

Current stage: 

We re-submitted a revised proposal to the DFG in October 2022. This revised version extends our focus to attitudes towards human rights in German foreign policy, in addition to attitudes towards human rights within Germany. In the changed international context due to Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, we aim to investigate attitudes towards human rights abroad and the costs people are willing to bear to help protect the basic right to life and self-determination outside their own country. We have complemented our types of threat used in the survey experiment with the potential threat of international war and have continued to develop our theoretical framework.

Fact sheet

2020 to 2026
in preparation
Data Sources: 
cross-national survey and experiment
Geographic Space: 
Europe, Germany, Italy, Poland and the UK