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Simmons discusses her research and role at Penn

September 06, 2016

Beth Simmons, newly appointed as the eighteenth Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, holds appointments at the Law School and in the Department of Political Science at the College of Arts & Sciences. She is the Andrea Mitchell University Professor in Law and Political Science and an expert in international law and human rights. Penn Law’s Office of Communications spoke with her about her upcoming plans at Penn, the intersection of law and political science, and her latest research on international borders.

Penn Law: What brought you to Penn Law?

Beth Simmons: What’s great about coming to Penn Law is the genuine opportunity to make a big contribution in the area of international studies and research. In the fall, I’ll be teaching a class with Bill Burke-White on International Law and International Relations. It’s a class he’s taught before, but I think it will be different to have someone with a law background and someone with a social science background in the same classroom. I’m also excited for the opportunity to both work in the Law School and contribute to the programming that’s going on in the Perry World House.

PL: You’re a quantitative political scientist. How does your work intersect with the legal scholarship being done here at Penn Law?

BS: A lot of what I work on is law-related. The major work I have done in this area has been analyzing why states commit themselves to international human rights treaties and what difference it’s made for their policies and practices. That research investigated the impact of those laws and found that states that ratify treaties start to make a lot of changes in their practices. And the evidence is convincing enough that I advocate that this system of rules really ought to be broadly supported.

I also have a new study that’s coming out in the journal International Organization. It asks whether or not the International Criminal Court (ICC) can deter international crimes. The ICC is an international judicial institution that’s only just a little over a decade old, and there’s been very little empirical work done yet on the consequences of its existence.

I have been working with Hyeran Jo, who is at Texas A&M, on whether domestic models of deterrents can be applied to international criminal law. We argue that basically they can, although they haven’t been much yet.

So we examined the impact of states ratifying the International Criminal Court on the propensity of both government officials and rebel groups to change their warfighting tactics once the International Criminal Court had jurisdiction over the areas in which they were operating.

We found some evidence — it wasn’t overwhelming, but it was detectable and important — of what we argue is a deterrence effect associated with ratifying the treaty: Governments and rebels are less likely to intentionally kill civilians when the ICC has jurisdiction and especially when it begins to investigate allegations of international crimes.

PL: What other projects are you working on now?

BS: I’m also working on what is going on at international borders around the world over time. A lot of people think that globalization has helped reduce barriers between states. A team of researchers has assembled satellite photos of all the major bordering crossings on land between two states. What we’re looking for are physical signs of official state presence in the built environment — the ability to control who comes and who goes. Things like gates and inspection stations.

It takes a long time to assemble and code this kind of data on a global basis, but in some cases, we can get satellite images going back in time, and we can see some structures being built, and see others being removed, or torn down, or allowed to decay. We’re also looking for asymmetries on each side. That could mean that one or both of the states have the capacity to enforce their distinct rules at the edge of their jurisdiction.

And, to put the law piece into it, I also want to collect information on border regimes: rules about visas, inspections, prohibited goods, border closings. In other words, we’re trying to get a sense of border “penetrability” around the world.

The idea is to see if I can develop a description — and then a theory — of states’ anxieties as expressed at their border crossings worldwide. What we’ve noticed so far is extremely preliminary, but we’ve seen some interesting things.       

First of all, as you’d expect, wealthy countries put up more barriers than poor countries do. That’s partially a resource question, but it’s also about economic differences. Controlling for how wealthy a country is, they put up even more filtering architecture if their neighbor is poorer, which speaks to the concern that differentials in economic opportunity on each side of the border will spur population movements and other unwanted goods and activities.

We also used cultural data on the ethnic, religious, and language fractionalization of societies on either side of the border. Using that information, another very interesting finding suggests that states with societies that are much more culturally homogeneous tend to put up more barriers on their side of the border.

That’s prodding me to investigate non-economic motives for developing a capacity to sort and sift people and goods as they come through. It suggests anxiety about a kind of ontological external threat — an identity threat.

PL: Moving from research to teaching, do you have a teaching philosophy?

BS: One of the main things I expect to do when I teach is to learn. That’s always my posture entering the classroom. That means being very well prepared, but also being ready to bump up against the limits of my own knowledge.

Teaching has sparked by research in a big way. My book Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics started when I was teaching undergraduates international law. This was 15 or 20 years ago, when I was just starting to work in the field. At the time there was almost no empirical research on international law — there were a lot of legal texts, legal analyses, and case work. My students asked me, “Professor Simmons, why does any of this matter?” And, do you know what? I didn’t know how to answer because there was no good research that looked at the impact of international law on outcomes.

That’s how I decided to write a book and several articles on international law compliance. If you can’t answer a fundamental question like the one my students asked, then it just tells us we have more work to do.