Does Torture Prevention Work?

Together with Par Engstrom (UCL Institute of the Americas), I am currently in Latin America conducting fieldwork on torture prevention in the region. Specifically, our research is concerned with the question of what factors contribute to reducing the risk of torture and other ill-treatment across weakly institutionalized democratic settings in Latin America.

The study of torture has gained prominence in recent years in the social science turn in human rights scholarship (for an excellent review essay), in particular the study of the (disputed) influence of human rights agreements such as the UN Convention Against Torture. Social scientific inquiry into the effects of international torture prevention instruments has generated significant insights into why and under what conditions states ratify human rights protective treaties and optional protocols. Relatively little attention, however, has been given to questions of how these international instruments actually work in practice, and when and why they matter for preventing torture violations on the ground.

Our research forms part of a major global study on the impact of torture prevention interventions led by Dr Richard Carver funded by the Association for the Prevention of Torture, we are currently (January 2014-January 2015) conducting detailed field research on two Latin American case studies: Chile and Peru. Together with Karinna Fernández (Chile) and Nataly Herrera (Peru), we are engaged in a political and socio-legal study of the evolution of torture and other ill-treatment from 1985 to the present day across the two country cases, with a particular focus on what factors have contributed or hindered its prevention.  As part of our fieldwork we will be conducting workshops in both countries with interested parties from within both state structures and civil society.

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Santiago project workshop, 3 September 2014

Importantly, we will also produce a dataset on torture incidence and observable prevention trends from across these two countries.  The results will be collated into a dataset drawing from all 16 country studies involved in the study.  The rigorous research design, combined with the depth of expert input from the field, promises to remedy some of the concerns surrounding existing data resources on torture incidence.

The region of Latin America is an especially instructive domain for evaluating the phenomena of torture over time and across variably stable democratic regimes. Many countries in the region have emerged from protracted periods of authoritarian rule, armed conflict and systematic human rights violations over the past 30 years, including the widespread use of torture. The legacy effects of gross human rights violations continue to resonate powerfully among the new democracies in Latin America. Compared to other regions of the world, Latin America displays a robust record of ratification of relevant international instruments in the area of torture prevention. However, the prevalence of torture in contemporary Latin America remains alarmingly high.

Par and I also collaborate on the project National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and Torture Prevention in Latin America, which was initially funded by a grant from the Human Rights and Democracy Programme of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The purpose of this research project is to strengthen the capacity of NHRIs in Latin America – Defensorías del Pueblo, Procuradurías y Comisiones de los Derechos Humanos – to engage with the Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council to promote State implementation of international torture prevention standards (CAT and OP-CAT). Updates and related research news are available on the project dedicated website.

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