Torture Research

Preventing Torture

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The literature on what governments and advocates can do to prevent torture is very limited, and scholarly work in this area is badly needed. While human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights watch work hard to discover and publicize human rights abuses, I am not aware of any research, either by human rights nonprofits or by scholars, that shows that these strategies actually work.
What research exists provides little evidence that the strategies used by advocacy groups and governments actually works. An evaluation of the European Commission to Prevent Torture found little evidence that the commission had any effect on state practices (Evans and Morgan, 1998). Many works simply describe advocacy efforts without evaluating their effectiveness at all, or proscribe action without evidence that the suggested actions would succeed (Amnesty International, 2003).
Existing research has found that international criticism leads regimes to switch from torture methods that leave scars to torture methods that are less easy to detect (Gomez 2003; Ron 1997; Rejali 2008). In Israel, international criticism caused a reduction in the number of people tortured (Ron 1997), while in Central America, the results were mixed (Gomez 2003). Further research is needed to determine how well pressure from international governments and human rights advocates succeeds in preventing torture, and under what circumstances.

Here is a list of existing publications that purport to show how advocates and governments can prevent torture.

Amnesty International.  Combating Torture: A Manual for Action (London: Amnesty International Publications, 2003).

Recommends a 12-point program, which would require “political will” by the authorities in torturing countries to implement.  The 12-point program is:

1. Condemn torture.
2. Ensure access to prisoners.
3. No secret detention.
4. Provide safeguards during detention and interrogation.
5. Prohibit torture in law.
6. Investigate reports of torture.
7. Prosecute incidents of torture.
8. No use of statements extracted under torture.
9. Provide effective training.
10. Provide reparation.
11. Ratify international treaties.
12. Exercise international responsibility.

The publication cites six cases where there were successful advocacy campaigns against torture: Israel, Peru, the United States, India, Austria, and South Africa.
Their steps would be helpful for ending abuse by local police in countries where the national government has made a commitment to ending torture. The book does not have a plan for international organizations, domestic NGOs, and foreign governments who want to prevent or reduce torture by states where the government has a policy supporting the use of torture against dissidents.

Bennet, W. Lance, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston. 2006. “None Dare Call It Torture: Indexing and the Limits of Press Independence in the Abu Ghraib Scandal.” Journal of Communication 56: 467-485.

Researched how the media framed the coverage of the Abu Ghraib scandal, by analyzing the prevalence of the words “abuse” and “torture” in newspaper articles about Abu Ghraib. The authors found that the media almost immediately adopted the Bush administration’s frame of the issue, describing the acts as “abuse” instead of “torture.” This occurred even though the guards’ actions met the legal definition of torture, and human rights groups and some independent journalists advocated the use of the word “torture.” In part, this occurred because the Democratic Party adopted the same frame as the administration; Democratic members of Congress and the 2004 Democratic candidate for President, almost always used the word “abuse.” A second reason lay with the media’s general compliance with administration framing, particularly in issues of foreign policy. The authors concluded that the media acted as a “guard dog,” not a “watch dog,” during the scandal.

Cohen, Stanley.  “Government Responses to Human Rights Reports: Claims, Denials, and Counterclaims.” Human Rights Quarterly 18, 3 (1996), 517-543.
A typology of government responses to human rights reports, seeing these responses primarily as ways of denying or evading responsibility.  Cohen found little evidence that governments respond to these reports by actually trying to prevent torture.

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.”

Crelinsten, Ronald D. 2003. “The World of Torture: A Constructed Reality.”  Theoretical Criminology 7(3), 293-318.
A theoretical article that lists possible ways to end torture, without evaluating their effectiveness.

Delaplace, Edouard, and Matt Pollard. 2006. “Torture Prevention in Practice.” Torture 16(3), 220-246.
This article is similar to Combating Torture (Amnesty International, 2003) in that it primarily covers the prevention of torture of common criminals, not politically motivated and intentional torture. Practical measures for prevention of torture include basic procedural safeguards for arrested persons, good conditions of detention, training, oversight and monitoring, formal legal prohibitions of torture, and criminal prosecution of torturers. They then give some examples of prevention efforts, most of which were coordinated by the Association for the Prevention of Torture. The article is good for its broad coverage of countries and types of efforts, but does not attempt to evaluate or compare their effectiveness.
Brazil: The UN Special Rapporteur visited, there were reports and correspondence between the UN Rapporteur and government, and the visit and reports brought some publicity to the issue of torture.
Moldova: The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) met with NGO’s and government officials to improve prison conditions.
Africa: NGOs met to establish African guidelines for torture prevention.
Europe: European Union states adopted guidelines for the eradication of torture.
Morocco, Nepal, Georgia, Uruguay, Bulgaria, Kenya, Azerbaijan: Local NGOs carry out visits and publicize abuses, advocate for legal and policy changes.
India: The government’s National Human Rights Commission monitors local police stations to prevent torture, although there is no information on whether this is effective. Uganda, South Africa, Fiji, Argentina, Poland, and Estonia have similar groups, although there’s no information on whether they do anything.
Europe: CPT monitoring of places of detention.
Turkey: CPT monitoring and pressure caused Turkey to adopt new policies in 2004 and actually implement them.

Duner, Bertil. 1998. An End to Torture: Strategies for its Eradication. London: Zed Books.
Only half of this book actually covers strategies for the eradication of torture.  Chapters 1-2 are an overview of international law.  Chapters 3-5 examine the nature of torture.  Chapters 6-7 examine torture treatment centers, and chapter 8 examines asylum law. Only chapters 9-13 examine prevention.

Chapter 9: Katarina Tomaseviski, “Foreign Policy and Torture”: Under international law, states can bring suits against other states for engaging in torture, but in practice this never happens. The UN human rights commission can expose torture, but can’t do anything about it unless states act on the information. She discusses two cases (Israel and Turkey), where the international community has opposed torture but the states still persist in it, largely because of military and economic support from the United States. She then talks about U.S. support of torturing states in other regions of the world.

Chapter 10: Priscilla B. Hayner, “The Contribution of Truth Commissions”:

Chapter 11: Rita Maran, “The Role of Non-governmental Organizations”: A descriptive overview, which talks about torture treatment centers, Amnesty, Organization Mondial Contre la Torture, Human Rights Watch, and so on.  Does not evaluate the success of their efforts.

Chapter 12: Manfred Nowak, “On the Prevention of Torture”: In the 1970’s, human rights advocates already realized that simply prohibiting torture under international law was not enough.  One school of thought targeted impunity, but this strategy has not had much effect. A second strategy, adopted by the ICRC and the CPT, makes preventive visits to places of detention.  He doubts this can work – torturers can simply cover up their actions before the visitors arrive. On the other hand, he approves of visits that result in reporting and recommendation, and considers this effective  He concludes that the best way to prevent torture is “the meticulous respect and ensurance as well as the strengthening” of personal liberty rights (250).  He says nothing about how to accomplish this.

Chapter 13: Inge Genefke, “Challenges for the Future”: A list of all the current problems, and all the possible solutions, without much effort to differentiate or prioritize them.  She sees “advocacy,” broadly defined as publicizing the problem, as a main task.

Evans, Malcolm D., and Morgan, Rod.  Preventing Torture: A Study of the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).
Their study evaluates the “procedural” and “substantive” aspects of the European Commission for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), but only “tentatively explored” its impact (viii), due to a variety of methodological and substantive difficulties. It is unlikely that the CPT had much of an effect on actual state practices, for these reasons:

1. CPT reports “are particularly unlikely candidates for stimulating revolutionary change,” due to their irregular publication, long after the visits take place.
2.  CPT reports issue from the Council of Europe, a distant and suspected institution.
3.  CPT reports concern issues “long debated domestically,” making it difficult to separate CPT’s effect from that of NGO’s and local officials.
4. CPT reports deal with difficult issues, about which officials are defensive and dislike conceding culpability.
5. Not enough time (only 8 years) has passed since the Commission’s formation.

What CPT does:  Visit detention centers, evaluate conditions, issue reports, and try to establish a dialogue with the member countries.  CPT has no ability to force action.  Its methods only work if the senior authorities want to cooperate – they are best in helping governments police the actions of their lower level officials.

The authors’ conclusions from their procedural evaluation:

Most European states have ratified the Convention Against Torture, although some, like Turkey, have ratified it and not followed it. CPT has been administratively efficient, including staffing and schedule of visits.  CPT has had little difficulty in gaining access to detention sites. Reports tend to be published late after the visit.

Dialogue with states is the weakest point.  States are slow to respond, and sometimes don’t respond at all in writing; they also don’t usually take action to correct abuses.

“The balance of evidence indicates that the CPT has so far exercised at best a marginal influence on the domestic policy of member states, and then only in a very few cases.  But it is not plausible to expect that it could be otherwise” (344).  Exceptions: some improvement in Cyprus, a minor procedural change in Sweden, some changes in poor accommodations in a number of places.

CPT has tried to develop common standards, a type of “jurisprudence” (346), but this has not been very successful (347-51).

Perceptions of the CPT: Generally very positive (353; 354-62).

Future of the CPT: More of the same, with minor improvements (362-382)

Gomez, Mayra. Human Rights in Cuba, El Salvador, and Nicaragua: A Sociological Perspective on Human Rights Abuse (New York: Routledge, 2003).
This book is a good comparative case study of three similar countries, and it identifies many factors which could influence countries’ use of torture, including the foreign policy of other countries and the actions of international advocates. Her findings:

1. Many causal factors can work either way, either contributing to an increase or a decrease in human rights abuse, depending on the context and their interaction with other factors. factors could contribute either to an increase or decrease in human rights abuses depending on the context. For example, the end of the cold war helped stabilize the state and therefore helped end torture in El Salvador and Nicaragua, but was destabilizing in Cuba and increased torture. Similarly, external support can be stabilizing and decrease torture (USSR support of Cuba), or destabilizing and increase torture (US support of El Salvador).
2. Pressure from internal human rights groups and external advocacy groups and governments can also work either way. For example, regimes often perceive internal pressures as threats where internal violent groups exist, as regimes tend to perceive internal pressure groups as allies of the violent groups. In this case, internal advocacy efforts can increase torture.
Some of Gomez’s findings are more constant, and therefore potentially more useful to advocates and policy makers:
3. External and internal threats always increase torture, as do sudden, violent regime changes.
4. International normative criticism more often causes a change in the character of abuse, to methods that are less easily observed, not a decrease in the amount of abuse. This finding mirrors Ron’s (1997) and Rejali’s (2008) conclusion that international human rights monitoring causes regimes to change methods from ones that leave detectable scars to methods that are not detectable.
5. International peace initiatives were the one consistently good influence on reducing torture, as they had a very good effect on decreasing torture in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Nicole, Laurent.  “Torture: The Need for a Dialogue With Its Victims and Its Perpetrators.”  Journal of Peace Research, Volume 24, No. 3 (1987), 315-322.

Ron, James. “Varying Methods of State Violence.” International Organization, 51, 2 (Spring 1997), 275-300.
International scrutiny did cause Israel to decrease its use of torture, but also caused a change to psychological methods that left no marks.

Roth, Kenneth.  “Human Rights Organizations: A New Force for Social Change.”  In Power, Samantha, and Graham Allison, eds.  Realizing Human Rights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 225-248.

Wantchekon, Leonard, and Healy, Andrew.  “The ‘Game’ of Torture.”  Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 43, No. 5 (October 1999), 596-609.

Uses game theory to explain torture, and the strategies of the tortured.  Entirely theoretical. Argues that torture can be a means of extracting information or a means of social control.  Where the goal is extracting information, victims can gain by resisting, and a culture of strong victims could be an effective preventive tool.  Where the goal is social control, the victims are doomed no matter what they do, and victim resistance does not decrease torture in general.


Written by tortureresearch

January 27, 2010 at 8:13 pm

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