The Promise and Limits of the International Law of Torture

TORTURE: A COLLECTION, Sanford Levinson, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2004

14 Pages Posted: 19 Jun 2008  

Oona A. Hathaway

Yale University - Law School


In this chapter, which was published in the Oxford University book "Torture: A Collection," I explore the place of international law in efforts to bring an end to the practice of torture. The debate over whether international law "works" has until now been highly polarized. On the one hand, skeptics of international law claim that international law is mere window dressing. States don't give up the right to engage in torture unless they have no intention of using it anyway. And once they join treaties like the Convention Against Torture, states will act no differently than if they had not done so. On the other side of the debate are those who reject this dismissive view of international law. They argue that states do not simply join treaties that are in their material interests. Rather, states will join a treaty if they are committed to the ideas and goals it embodies, even if doing so may be costly. And once states join, believers in international law argue, they will abide by their international legal commitments "most of the time." I, by contrast, argue that international law has a real effect, but not one that either friends or foes of international law would expect. Both advocates and skeptics of international law are missing important parts of the picture. Both fail to consider the role of internal enforcement of international treaties on countries' willingness to join and abide by them. Moreover, they ignore almost completely the indirect effects of treaties on countries' decisions to accept international legal limits on their behavior and then to violate or abide by them. Recognizing these dynamics creates a broader perspective on the role that international law plays in shaping how states actually behave and hence provides a more accurate picture of both the potential and the limits of international law.

Keywords: international law, torture

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Hathaway, Oona A., The Promise and Limits of the International Law of Torture. TORTURE: A COLLECTION, Sanford Levinson, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Available at SSRN:

Oona A. Hathaway (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-4992 (Phone)
203-432-1107 (Fax)

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