The consequences of accession: the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption’s Impact on Children’s Rights


Do states join human rights treaties if they know that non-compliance can have tangible consequences? We contend that states are less likely to accede to such treaties, especially if they have an outside option. We investigate this in the context of accession to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-Operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (or: Hague Convention), which regulates the adoption of children across borders. We theorize that the incentive to join the treaty is structured by the salience of, and likelihood of participation in, intercountry adoption: states with larger orphan populations should prefer the outside option, whereas the presence and pressure children’s rights NGOs should prompt states to join the convention. We employ new data on the presence of children’s rights NGOs and a Cox proportional hazards technique. We find support for our propositions, with a caveat: states with large orphan populations initially prefer to the outside option, but become more likely to join the convention over time. This suggests that NGOs can influence states to join treaties that have consequences—especially if they assist with the development of administrative infrastructure that meets treaty requirements.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    The US is the only United Nations member to remain outside the CRC.

  2. 2.

    Additional states have acceded since 2012, bringing the total to 101 as of May 2019.

  3. 3.

    Whether the Hague Convention has successfully addressed the problems of intercountry adoption covering for or leading to kidnapping, stealing, or trafficking in children, and whether it adequately prevents agency representatives from pressuring birth parents to relinquish their child are matters of ongoing debate.

  4. 4.

    In addition, the Hague Conference on Private International Law (HccH 2008, 2015) offers technical assistance to help states meet the convention’s standards, as well as provides extensive guidance on good practices.

  5. 5.

    Ethiopia suspended adoptions to the US in 2017 and banned all adoptions by foreigners in 2018. It has not yet acceded to the Hague Convention. The suspension was a reaction to reports of the maltreatment of some Ethiopian children in their adoptive families (including a US couple convicted for killing a child), but also a consequence of allegations of trafficking in children and other suspect practices domestically (Igunza 2018; Joyce 2013).

  6. 6.

    Efrat et al. (2015) list 19 receiving countries and exclude Andorra, Cyprus, Luxembourg, and Malta, all of which receive only very small number of children. The group of 23 receiving countries correlates highly with the countries that were members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) before the conclusion of the Hague Convention in 1993 (i.e. that were members before Mexico, Korea, and several former East bloc countries joined). The longstanding OECD members that are not receiving countries are Austria, Greece, Japan, Portugal, and Turkey. Almost all of these were sending countries at some point in the post-World War II era, but only Korea remained a sending country by 2012.

  7. 7.

    The HccH has instituted the Intercountry Adoption Technical Assistance Program (ICATAP) to aid countries that are interested in acceding but ‘are experiencing difficulties with implementation of the Convention’ (2008, Annex 2‒7).

  8. 8.

    Many thanks to Alexandra Westerbeek of UNICEF for pointing this out.

  9. 9.

    This source provides a well-referenced and more detailed classification of legal systems than the entries provided in the CIA’s World Fact Book.

  10. 10.

    We employ the proportion of women in parliament and the fertility rate, because these measures provide more consistent data across the range of countries and for the time period of our study (1990‒2012) than alternative measures. These measures generally correlate well with broader measures of gender (in)equality, but there are exceptions. For instance, Rwanda records one of the highest proportions of women in parliament (signifying higher gender equality), but also one of the highest fertility rates (signifying lower gender equality). By using the fertility rate as a robustness check and seeing that it does not change the results, we have greater confidence in our analyses.

  11. 11.

    Analysis using GNI/cap recoded into quartiles is not statistically significant in all models, but does show a larger substantive result (not shown).

  12. 12.

    Some authors have painted UNICEF as ‘anti-adoption’ on the basis of these activities, which tend to reduce the number of children available for intercountry adoption (Bartholet 2007; Poe 2014; Joyce 2013).

  13. 13.

    The Hague Conference on Private International Law is not an NGO, but NGOs play a role in persuading decision-makers to make use of the resources provided by ICATAP.


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We thank the University of North Texas for financial support for this study. We also thank Christine Balarezo, Melissa Martinez, and Amalia Pulido for their assistance with coding the NGO data, and Michael Greig and Jacqueline DeMeritt for sharing their expertise on event history modelling and graphics.

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Breuning, M., Xi, J. The consequences of accession: the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption’s Impact on Children’s Rights. J Int Relat Dev 24, 77–100 (2021).

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  • Human rights
  • Children’s rights
  • Intercountry adoption
  • Orphans
  • Non-governmental organizations
  • NGOs
  • Compliance
  • Accession