Torture Research

Large-Sample Quantitative Studies

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The following studies use statistical methods to find correlations between human rights abuses and a variety of causal factors. My own view is that this type of analysis is useful but should be taken with a grain of salt. Most studies use human rights reports from Amnesty International, Freedom House, the State Department, and other sources to assign a numerical value to states’ level of human rights abuses. They then use regression analyses to find statistically significant predictors of abuse. However, human rights reports are such an intrinsically flawed source of data that the numerical values can only be seen as very rough estimates, and the statistical equations are therefore of limited accuracy.

Apodaca, Clair. 2007. “The Whole World Could Be Watching: Human Rights and the Media.” Journal of Human Rights 6(2), 147-164.
Apodaca did regression analysis with scores on the “political terror scale,” a 1-5 scale measuring torture and killing. Media were measured through newspapers, radio receivers, televisions, and internet access per 1,000 people. All were statistically significant at p < .10 even when many controls were included: press freedom, democracy, military expenditure, conflict, foreign direct investment, population, GDP/capita, and trade openness.

Cingranelli, David L., and David L. Richards. “Respect for Human Rights after the End of the Cold War.” Journal of Peace Research, Volume 36, No. 5 (1999), 511-534.
An analysis of 79 states, finds that torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings did not decrease (in general) after the end of the Cold War.  There was a decrease in political imprisonment.  Contrary to expectations, a decrease in conflict did not cause a decrease in political imprisonment, but as expected, increased democracy and increased involvement in the world economy did decrease political imprisonment.  The authors caution that these tend to be “illiberal democracies,” with a shallow commitment to human rights, and that improvements will probably therefore be short-lived.

Conrad, Courtenay Ryals, and Will H. Moore. 2010. “What Stops the Torture?” American Journal of Political Science 54, 459-476.

Authors’ abstract: “States whose agents engage in torture in a given year have a 93% chance of continuing to torture in the following year. What leads governments to stop the use of torture? We focus on the principal–agent relationship between the executive and the individuals responsible for supervising and interrogating state prisoners. We argue that some liberal democratic institutions change the probability that leaders support the creation of institutions that discourage jailers and interrogators from engaging in torture, thus increasing the probability of a state terminating its use of torture. These relationships are strongly conditioned by the presence of violent dissent; states rarely terminate the use of torture when they face a threat. Once campaigns of violent dissent stop, however, states with popular suffrage and a free press are considerably more likely to terminate their use of torture. Also given the end of violent dissent, the greater the number of veto points in government, the lower the likelihood that a state terminates its use of torture.”

Dreiher, Axel, Martin Gassebner, and Lars-H. R. Siemers. 2007. “Does Terror Threaten Human Rights? Evidence from Panel Data.” CESifo Working Paper No. 1935, downloaded from, May 2010.

Using data on 111 countries for the period 1973-2002, finds that terrorist attacks undermine physical integrity rights (the right to be free from arbitrary imprisonment, extrajudicial killing, and torture), but have no effect on empowerment rights (political freedom, freedom of movement, and freedom of religion).

Henderson, Conway W.  “Conditions Affecting the Use of Political Repression.”  Journal of Conflict Resolution, Volume 35, Number 1 (March 1991), 120-142.
Democracy, a high economic growth rate, and low economic inequality strongly predicted the level of respect for human rights (r2 = .551).  Level of economic development (different from growth rate) did not predict respect for human rights.

Mitchell, Neil J., and James M. McCormick.  “Economic and Political Explanations of Human Rights Violations.”  World Politics 40 (1988), 476-498.
Economic development did have a positive effect (contrary to Henderson) on arbitrary imprisonment and torture, and connections with capitalist countries had no effect (contrary to Chomsky).  Former British colonies were less likely to take political prisoners, but equally likely to torture.  The relative newness of a state was unrelated to imprisonment and torture. Mixed support was found for Jean Kirkpatrick’s thesis that right-wing authoritarian regimes were less likely to torture than left-wing totalitarian regimes.

Poe, Steven, and Neil Tate.  1994.  “Repression of human rights to personal integrity in the 1980s: A global analysis.”  American Political Science Review 88:853-872.
Democracy strongly correlated with respect for human rights, and participation in civil or international war has a strong negative correlation.  Economic development (positive) and population size (negative) are less strongly correlated, and left-wing regimes weakly but significantly linked.  No evidence that population growth, British cultural influence, military control, or economic growth affect repression.

Poe, Steven, Neil Tate, and Linda Camp Keith.  1999.  “Repression of the Human Right to Personal Integrity Revisited: A Global Cross-National Study Covering the Years 1976-1993.”  International Studies Quarterly 43, 291-313.
This is a bigger version of their 1994 study.  They found the same results, except they found that British cultural influence slightly decreased repression, military control slightly increased it, and leftist countries were slightly less repressive (before, found no difference).

Walsh, James I., and James A. Piazza. “2010. “Why Respecting Physical Integrity Rights Reduces Terrorism.” Comparative Political Studies 43: 551-577.

Uses quantitative data sets on human rights and terrorism for 153 countries for the years 1981-2003 to determine whether restrictions on physical integrity rights (including the right not to be tortured) affect the prevalence of terror attacks. Controls for a number of exogenous factors. Finds that restricting physical integrity rights actually increases the risk of terrorist attack by “making it more difficult to collect intelligence on terrorists and by undermining domestic and international support for their counterterrorism efforts.”


Written by tortureresearch

January 27, 2010 at 8:53 pm

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