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Sociologists have barely begun to address the paradox that states are both violators and guarantors of human rights. This is necessary if we are contribute to understanding how human rights may be institutionalized in practice. There is a need to go beyond the discussion in which cosmopolitan theorists have engaged concerning international human rights law and its effects on states sovereignty, to shift the focus to state autonomy. It is only insofar as states are autonomous that state actors can comply with the international human rights agreements to which they have signed up (in the face of resistance from others who will be disadvantaged by this compliance). And it is also state autonomy that is at stake when officials act in defiance of international human rights norms. Using Charles Tilly’s ideal-type of “stateness” and neo-Marxist theory concerning the basis for the relative autonomy of states, the article explores variations in state formation that are relevant to the institutionalization of human rights.