The Puzzle of Abu Ghraib: Are Democratic Institutions a Palliative or Panacea?
60 Pages Posted: 19 Oct 2007 Last revised: 11 Dec 2007
Date Written: December 8, 2007
The events of Abu Ghraib exposed politicians, journalists, military and law enforcement personnel, NGOs, activists and ordinary citizens to the potential brutality of state repression. Many were left stunned that the agents of a liberal democracy would perpetrate such horrific acts against individuals in the state's control. Such shock makes sense if one believes that liberal democratic institutions constrain leaders from acting on the utilitarian incentive to employ torture during interrogations. While such a belief is apparently widespread, is it consistent with the recent historical record? Extant theories of repression and global evidence about torture suggest that it is not. We distinguish among three mechanisms that might constrain the use of torture in liberal democracies: voice, veto, and freedom of expression. We then argue that voice is unlikely to have a strong effect when the state is faced with violent dissent, and that the effect of veto and freedom of expression will be substantially reduced when the state is faced with a violent challenge. To test our hypotheses we use data from 146 countries covering the years 1980-1999 and investigate the extent to which voice, veto, or freedom of expression inhibit countries' use of torture both in times of quiescence and in times when dissidents challenge the state with violence. We find that rather than being aberrant, state-sponsored torture like that in Abu Ghraib is perfectly consistent with both theory and previous experience. More specifically, democratic institutions reduce the probability that a state uses torture in only limited circumstances.
Keywords: Repression, Torture, Human Rights, Democracy, Institutions
JEL Classification: D74
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation