Does Criminalizing Torture Deter Police Torture?

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American Journal of Political Science

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DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12684


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.


American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 67, No. 4 (October 2023): 932-947. DOI.