Does Criminalizing Torture Deter Police Torture?

37 Pages Posted: 15 Jun 2020 Last revised: 16 Jun 2020

Date Written: May 20, 2020


Studies that cast doubt on the effectiveness of legal norms for improving respect for human rights have mostly focused on treaty ratifications or constitutional provisions. In contrast, I focus on national criminal law. I argue that criminalization of torture is more likely to deter police torture than these other forms of legal prohibition, because criminalization more credibly increases the threat of material and social costs of torture, while also helping to catalyze mobilization that amplifies these deterrent effects. Using an original, global dataset on national criminal laws against torture, I find that states that criminalize torture and define it in line with the standards of the UN Convention against Torture experience reductions in police torture. These findings highlight a largely unexplored angle on the relationship between law and human rights protection and demonstrate the importance of legal domestication for the effectiveness of international human rights law.

Keywords: torture, international human rights law, criminalization, police brutality, criminal law, comparative law, human rights, deterrence

Suggested Citation

Berlin, Mark S., Does Criminalizing Torture Deter Police Torture? (May 20, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

Mark S. Berlin (Contact Author)

Marquette University ( email )

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