Monday, December 14, 2015

Important New Research on Torture and Human Rights

Two important new publications address aspects of torture: its effectiveness as an investigative technique, and the impact of treaties barring torture. 

First, Professors Cosette Creamer and Beth Simmons have posted a new article on SSRN:  "Do Self-Reporting Regimes Matter? Evidence from the Convention Against Torture."  Here's the abstract:

Self-reporting on implementation is common in international regulatory agreements, yet we know almost nothing about how (or whether) it works. We argue self-reporting provides information for international and domestic audiences, with the potential to create pressure for agreement compliance. Using original data on the quality and responsiveness of reports submitted to the Committee Against Torture, we test for the influence of the review process on the pervasiveness of torture. Adopting a dynamic approach to strengthen our ability to draw inferences, we find that the review process in fact does help to reduce the incidence of torture in reporting countries. Moreover, local media attention spikes during the review process, consistent with a domestic mobilization mechanism. This is the first study to evaluate the effects of self-reporting on torture outcomes. Since many international agreements are based on self-reporting, the results have broad significance for international relations.
Second,  Harvard University Press has published a new book, Why Torture Doesn't Work, by Shane O'Mara.  According to the publisher,

"Torture is banned because it is cruel and inhumane. But as Shane O’Mara writes in this account of the human brain under stress, another reason torture should never be condoned is because it does not work the way torturers assume it does.

In countless films and TV shows such as Homeland and 24, torture is portrayed as a harsh necessity. If cruelty can extract secrets that will save lives, so be it. CIA officers and others conducted torture using precisely this justification. But does torture accomplish what its defenders say it does? For ethical reasons, there are no scientific studies of torture. But neuroscientists know a lot about how the brain reacts to fear, extreme temperatures, starvation, thirst, sleep deprivation, and immersion in freezing water, all tools of the torturer’s trade. These stressors create problems for memory, mood, and thinking, and sufferers predictably produce information that is deeply unreliable—and, for intelligence purposes, even counterproductive. As O’Mara guides us through the neuroscience of suffering, he reveals the brain to be much more complex than the brute calculations of torturers have allowed, and he points the way to a humane approach to interrogation, founded in the science of brain and behavior.

Torture may be effective in forcing confessions, as in Stalin’s Russia. But if we want information that we can depend on to save lives, O’Mara writes, our model should be Napoleon: “It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile.”

Read more about O'Mara's book here.

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