The standard of accountability used [by human rights monitors] to assess state behaviors becomes more stringent as monitors look harder for abuse, look in more places for abuse, and classify more acts as abuse.
That is, Fariss, who employs sophisticated statistical models to reach his conclusion, finds considerable evidence to suggest that since 1980 governments’ respect for physical integrity rights has improved globally. More precisely, in response to pressure, governments have limited the most egregious forms of abuse, and in response human rights monitors have shifted to calling governments out for less egregious, but equally illegal forms of abuse. The figure below, from the paper, depicts the trend graphically.
Compare this with Amnesty International’s recent allegations as it launched a Stop Torture campaign.
“Governments around the world are two-faced on torture – prohibiting it in law, but facilitating it in practice” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, as he launched Stop Torture, Amnesty International’s latest global campaign to combat widespread torture and other ill-treatment in the modern world.
Torture is not just alive and well – it is flourishing in many parts of the world. As more governments seek to justify torture in the name of national security, the steady progress made in this field over the last thirty years is being eroded.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this new campaign in a survey of public attitudes in 31 countries. They ask three questions:
- If I were taken into custody by the authorities in my country, I am confident I would be safe.
- Clear rules against torture are crucial because any use of torture is immoral and will weaken international human rights.
- Torture is sometimes necessary and acceptable to gain information that may protect the public.
You can access a summary of the survey findings, Attitudes to Torture: Stop Torture Global Survey, here. RT.com (TV-Novosti) ran its coverage under the headline “Western Glorification of Torture Making it ‘Acceptable’ – Amnesty.” HufPo UK leads their coverage this way:
Nearly one in three people – 29% – in the UK thinks torture is sometimes necessary and acceptable to protect the public, compared to 25% in Russia, according to a new poll conducted by Amnesty International.
The RT.com article casts an eye toward the US public:
The subject of torture suddenly entered America’s living rooms in the summer of 2003 as the ‘war on terror’ was really heating up. Amnesty reported the horrific details of torture in US-run Iraqi prisons, most notably in Abu Ghraib where reports, backed up by shocking photographs, showed Iraqi detainees being exposed to various forms of physical and mental torture. Unlike a disease that may be eradicated with the right diagnosis and medication, stopping the scourge of torture requires a fundamental change in the mentality of people, many of whom see the use of the age-old technique as ‘routine’.
“It’s almost become normalized, it’s become routine,” Amnesty secretary general Salil Shetty told a press conference at the start of the ‘Stop Torture’ campaign in London. “Since the so-called War against Terrorism, the use of torture, particularly in the United States and their sphere of influence… has got so much more normalized as part of national security expectations.”
Can one square the circle across the findings of Fariss and Amnesty International? One possibility, of course, is that the improved respect reported by Fariss has been in physical integrity rights other than freedom from torture. Current evidence does not permit us to rule that out.
But we can do a cursory, and not scientifically sound, comparison of the AI public opinion findings to the survey findings of 31 countries in 2006 and 2008 studied by Peter Miller. Like AI’s, these surveys document considerable variation across countries. 18 countries appear in both, allowing some rough comparisons across the past 6-8 years.
The value rises in 11 of the 18 countries, and the correlation between the values is moderately positive (0.54). This is broadly consistent with Amnesty’s argument that, globally, public attitudes toward torture have become more lax. Having said, let me underscore the limitation of comparing across these surveys: “broadly consistent” is a far cry from “demonstrates” or “proves.”
The international human rights regime was constructed without the assistance of social science: activists and legal scholars raised it up and made it a reality. However, social scientists are really making some progress toward understanding what it takes to constrain Leviathan (PDF). Amanda Murdie recently provided a brief tour of recent research on human rights. You should check it out.
I anticipate increasing interaction and cross-fertilization between social scientists and monitoring organizations like Amnesty, as well as IGO and even national governments. Work like Fariss’ forthcoming article opens new avenues for scientific inquiry and debate, while reports like Amnesty’s highlight the need for vigilance and improved monitoring. As American abolitionist Theodore Parker argued, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” and while we have many rivers to cross, activists and social scientists each have much to contribute.
 The rights to the physical integrity of the person include the right to life, freedom from torture and other abuse that maims the body, detention without due process, and ill treatment during incarceration, among others.  You can access the report, Torture in 2014: 30 Years of Broken Promises, here.  That would be consistent, for example, with Darius Rejali’s work documenting a global shift, led by democracies, away from torture that leaves scars on the body toward torture that does not leave scars.  Miller, “Torture Approval in Comparative Perspective,” Hum Rights Rev (2011) 12:441–463 (open access).  The comparisons are not scientifically sound because the questions asked are not the same, nor is it clear how valid the sampling frames are, etc.