Does Criminalizing Torture Deter Police Torture?

American Journal of Political Science, forthcoming

43 Pages Posted: 15 Jun 2020 Last revised: 18 Oct 2021

Date Written: September 10, 2021


Much research casts doubt on the effectiveness of legal norms for improving respect for human rights. But such studies 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 codified in 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 underscore the general importance of domestic legal internalization for the effectiveness of international law.

Keywords: torture, human rights, police, deterrence, international law, criminal law, Convention against Torture, internalization, domestication

Suggested Citation

Berlin, Mark S., Does Criminalizing Torture Deter Police Torture? (September 10, 2021). American Journal of Political Science, forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Mark S. Berlin (Contact Author)

Marquette University ( email )

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