Study: Torture reports rose despite UN convention

September 3, 2009,

Newly published research suggests that government use of torture has increased worldwide despite international norms discouraging it.

The study, published in The Journal of Legal Studies, found that between 1985 and 2003, reports of state-sponsored torture collected by the U.S. State Department and Amnesty International increased, even as a growing number of countries signed on to the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

"The results could not be clearer: there is no evidence that as more states have joined the CAT, states' use of torture has abated," write study authors Michael Gilligan, a at New York University, and Nathaniel Nesbitt. "Indeed, if anything, the results suggest that levels of torture have increased."

The U.N. enacted the CAT in 1987. By 2003, more than 75 percent of the world nations had signed on to the convention. But in spite of the growing consensus against torture, Gilligan and Nesbitt found that torture was still reported in 69 percent of the world's nations in 2003. Moreover, the data suggest that CAT signatories were just as likely to torture as non-signatory nations.

"Our results suggest, quite simply, that torture is a practice in which leaders engage even though they know it is wrong," the authors write.

"It may be possible to point to unscientifically selected cases where norms appear to have discouraged torture," Gilligan said. "But over a long period and across a broad sample nations, there's no evidence that nations are more constrained by an anti-torture norm."

The authors used two different point scales to rate the prevalence of government-sponsored torture in each country. They used a to determine what factors appear to influence how often a nation tortures.

They found that torture reports are more prevalent in larger nations, nations plagued by civil war, and in dictatorships. Democracies and nations with a larger tended to have fewer torture reports.

The authors acknowledge that there are potential complications in studying torture. Most notably, their study tracks torture reports, not actual occurrences. It could be that actual occurrences of torture went down, but better reporting has created the illusion of an increase. However, Gilligan and Nesbitt find that explanation unlikely.

If better reporting alone were the reason for the results, the authors say, one would expect democracies—which are generally more open societies—to show a larger spike in torture reports than dictatorships. That didn't happen. The results show that dictatorships report more torture than democracies. That finding is a strong indicator that actual torture—not just reports of torture—increased.

Just what might be driving the overall increase in torture is outside the bounds of this study, the authors say. But what this study makes clear is that an international consensus against torture appears to do little to discourage the practice.

"The findings in this paper are a disappointment to anyone who believes that an anti-torture norm can reduce the state practice of torture," the authors conclude. "We could find no evidence to support that belief."

More information: Michael Gilligan and Nathaniel Nesbitt, "Do Norms Reduce ?" The Journal of Legal Studies Vol. 38:2

Source: University of Chicago (news : web)

Explore further: Doctors must be held accountable for complying with torture

Related Stories

Author explores CIA connections to torture tactics

January 9, 2006

A professor of history at UW-Madison has authored a book available this month that explores evidence of a 50-year legacy of U.S. government-sponsored forms of psychological torture.

Recommended for you

Unprecedented study of Picasso's bronzes uncovers new details

February 17, 2018

Musee national Picasso-Paris and the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS) have completed the first major material survey and study of the Musee national Picasso-Paris' ...

Using Twitter to discover how language changes

February 16, 2018

Scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London, have studied more than 200 million Twitter messages to try and unravel the mystery of how language evolves and spreads.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2 / 5 (1) Sep 03, 2009
"Our results suggest, quite simply, that torture is a practice in which leaders engage even though they know it is wrong," the authors write.
Wrong. And do think they fear going to hell for it? Do you think they would be ashamed if they were confronted with it? What could 'wrong' possibly have to do with this?? People will tend to employ what works, and will not stop until they are stopped.

I remember a quote from an old scifi book: Humans asked aliens if they believed in God. "We believe in Punishment" they replied.

not rated yet Sep 04, 2009
with Amerika leading the charge and Bush Version 3 in the white house - the US remains the de jure global standard - and they still love Cheney and his butchers. Waterboard the neocons!!
not rated yet Sep 04, 2009
Butchers. Only because its absolutely necessary. As far as torture goes, did the CIA cut off voters inkstained fingers? Did they throw acid in womens faces? No. They scared and embarrassed a few terrorists who would gladly burn down your house with your family in it if we let them. Sometimes you HAVE to fight.
not rated yet Sep 04, 2009
As wiseman Eddie Vedder once said in song and verse:

"Can't escape from the common rule/If you hate something/don'tchya do it, too?...don't you?!"
not rated yet Sep 06, 2009
did the CIA cut off voters inkstained fingers? Did they throw acid in womens faces?
Yeah well did the Taliban just blow up fuel trucks killing 90+ civilians? Did they ask imperialist oil-guzzlers to invade their country to begin with? You Nazis make me sick. Yanqui GTFO

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.