Public Opinion and the Legitimacy of International Courts

Erik Voeten


Public legitimacy consists of beliefs among the mass public that an international court has the right to exercise authority in a certain domain. If publics strongly support such authority, it may be more difficult for (democratically elected) governments to undermine an international court that takes controversial decisions. However, early studies found that while a majority of the public trusts international courts, this was based on weak attitudes derivative from more general legal values and support for the international institutions. I reexamine these claims with data for European courts, the International Criminal Court, and the International Court of Justice. First, using Google search data and media-analysis I find that, at least in Europe, information-seeking about international courts has increased and is at similar levels to national high courts and prominent international institutions. Second, trust in international courts remains strongly correlated with trust in international and domestic institutions. Countries in which more individuals trust their national courts are also countries in which more individuals trust international courts. Individuals who trust their national courts more are also more trusting of international courts. This undermines at least some interpretations of the credible commitment argument: in the minds of the general public, international courts may not be substitutes for poorly performing domestic courts, but extensions of a functioning rule of law system that they already trust.

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