The Bad Ass Theory of Why Dictators Sign the Convention Against Torture

by Erik Voeten on February 4, 2010 · 14 comments

in International Relations

A decade or so ago Oona Hathaway and others noted that states that ratified the Convention Against Torture (CAT) appeared to be more likely to practice torture than states that did not sign this treaty. Ever since, scholars have been trying to make sense of this, especially since ratifying the CAT is somewhat costly (compared to other global human rights treaties).

A first set of explanations suggested that dictators signed the treaty to gain reputation or win aid concessions from Western Liberal democracies. Beth Simmons and others pointed out, however, that it wouldn’t make much sense for Western states to reward such obviously insincere behavior and that there is no evidence that authoritarian states actually get goodies for signing human rights treaties. This suggests that we should look inside autocracies. For example, my colleague Jim Vreeland’s article in International Organization argues that more pluralistic authocracies are more likely to exhibit pressures for signing treaties but also have more dissent, which provides incentives for torture.

James Hollyer and Peter Rosendorff have a new working paper that takes this quite a few steps further. They argue that dictatorships use signing the CAT as a costly signal to domestic opposition groups that they will continue to employ repressive tactics to stay in power (paper available from PEIO). Truly “bad ass” dictators are willing to pay the cost that CAT brings with it. So, these regimes sign precisely because they have no intention to comply and because everyone knows this. The model has an interesting set of empirical implications, such as that worse torturers are more likely to sign, that the CAT does help to reduce torture in those states but that the CAT also helps these dictators to stay in power longer.

I am oscillating between admiration for the sheer ingenuity of the theory and disbelief at the sheer implausibility of it all. Wouldn’t bad ass dictators have better technologies for committing to their bad-assness than signing treaties? Hollyer and Rosendorf do offer a number of anecdotes to support their mechanisms and the empirical implications they get out of the model are really interesting and largely consistent with the evidence. They are also upfront that this is not necessarily the only mechanism that explains CAT ratification. In any case, a really interesting and novel contribution to this debate that is well worth a read.

Update The Economist has picked up on this.

{ 12 comments }

Adano February 4, 2010 at 10:35 am

Sadly, the phrase “bad ass” occurs nowhere in the linked paper.

Erik February 4, 2010 at 11:08 am

This was commonly referred to as the “bad ass” theory at PEIO (not sure who to credit). It is probably a good thing when a paper acquires a nickname.

Talleyrand February 4, 2010 at 11:48 am

Disbelief at implausibility seems to capture my reaction pretty well. However, “well worth a read” is not a phrase I would use, given that almost all of the paper consists of an over-complicated mathematical model that, to quote Jon Elster “Adds nothing to the verbal presentation” and a bunch of data analysis that does not in my or in Voeten’s case add to the plausibility of the causal mechanism that they are asserting is at work.

Kieran February 4, 2010 at 11:58 am

Wouldn’t bad ass dictators have better technologies for committing to their bad-assness than signing treaties?

Like rounding up some opponents and torturing them, maybe?

Erik February 4, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Talleyrand: I disagree with you on the model. It provides a set of empirical implications that hang together in counterintuitive ways. People who don’t like models won’t like this one either but it sure made me think (which doesn’t necessarily mean that I buy the whole thing).

Jay February 4, 2010 at 3:29 pm

A great example of when a little qualitative research could go a long way. A few brief studies on the politics surrounding accession to this treaty in authoritarian regimes could really support their conjecture or show that the theory is elegant but wrong.

James Raymond Vreeland February 4, 2010 at 8:30 pm

The phrase “bad ass” developed when Peter Rosendorff first told me (the Vreeland guy mentioned above) about the paper. I believe I was the first to use the term publicly – first, when I taught the paper to some students, and then more recently at the 3rd Annual Conference on the Political Economy of International Organizations.

I agree with Erik, by the way, about “the sheer ingenuity of the theory.” And I’d like to also note that this is part of a broad approach that Rosendorff has developed over the course of his career (with all due respect, of course, to his amazing co-author.)

The central thesis in much of Peter’s work is that international arrangements are ways to signal information to an uninformed domestic audience. Basically, rulers and citizens play a principal-agent game of asymmetric information. Whether and what kind of information the ruler will transmit to citizens depends on domestic political institutions (e.g., democracy vs. dictatorship), with rulers always trying to maximize their chances of survival in office. International arrangements can serve as credible 3rd parties that rulers use to transmit information about what type of ruler s/he is.

Peter has used this framework to explain trade agreements in his work with Milner and Mansfield. And he has used the framework to explain transparency (where the World Bank serves a credible 3rd party) in a paper he co-authored with yours truly.

In the trade and transparency work, democracies use international arrangements to credibly signal the fact that they are following policy that is good for voters. In the human rights story, the dictator uses the treaty to signal that they are willing to do anything, including torture, to stay in office – and they’re so sure of themselves, they commit to going to jail (through the enforcement of universal jurisdiction) if they do ever fall from power.

The “bad ass” story of why dictators enter into human rights treaties contrasts nicely with Moravcsik’s story of why democracies enter into them. You see, Rosendorff and Hollyer’s dictators enter because they’re sure they’ll never fall from power, and they want to send a signal of how tough they are. Moravcsik’s democracies enter because they’re not sure at all that they’re going to maintain power… they fear that a tough dictator may want to overthrow and torture them… so they want to tie the hands of the state to a powerful international organization. I don’t think the stories are mutually exclusive, and they pertain to different types of international institutions – the Convention Against Torture has “universal jurisdiction” and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and
Fundamental Freedoms delegates sovereignty to a powerful international organization…

If you’re wondering why such a long post… I’ve been trying to convince Peter to write a book on this stuff… consider this a really rough start :-)

ok – ’nuff said for now.

-JRV

Talleyrand February 5, 2010 at 9:21 am

I’m still not sure what counterintuitive empirical implications result from the equilibrium derivation that you couldn’t have got from “hey what if anti-torture treaty signing is a costly signal of resolve to stay in power?”

Plus, the possibly counterintuitive extra implication that comes from this idea (not the math) that signatories of the CAT stay in power longer could just as well be explained away by an increased international or domestic legitimacy that comes from being visibly associated with an anti-torture treaty, or some unobservable idea of ‘political skill’ that would account for both signing treaties that you then avoid compliance with and also account for the regime staying in power longer.

Tony February 7, 2010 at 6:58 pm

Is the repeated use of “counterintuitive” in posts here a nice way of saying “ridiculous?”

I certainly hope so. That anyone could pay any attention to such a silly theory (except in a rubbernecking at a wreck sort of way) is a sad commentary on the state of PS research. This is political science as “oh, look what cute/provocative results” I can get by playing with the numbers. Call me a stick in the mud, but I prefer research that can be taken seriously.

elad-vav February 11, 2010 at 7:07 pm

I didn’t real any of the papers, and I’m not a political scientist.

With that in mind, here’s the simplest explanation that I can come up with for why badasses sign hippie treaties while democracies don’t. I know you’re talking about quantative research, and I can’t do the work involved in testing this, but I wonder if this makes sense, and if there are any perceived phenomena this fails to explain.

I live in China, thus I’ll use China for some of my examples.

For starters, by the way, I was told China has one of the most liberal and advanced constitutions in the world. I didn’t check this, though, but it makes sense with the rest of the theory.

Anyway, here’s my uneducated view on why nations who sign treaties against torture are more likely to employ torture: When a liberal democracy violates a treaty on which it has signed, the internal penalties are severe; sometimes all hell breaks loose; the media has a field day, the citizens are furious, etc. . When a dictatorship violate a treaty, what can the citizens do? Thus, a democracy has penalties for violating treaties, while dictatorships do not. From here the conclusion is obvious.

But this still does not explain why do they sign. They sign because it’s a PR tool. They tell the world media “well, we’re signed on a treaty against torture, so we couldn’t possibly be committing torture, right, since then we’d be lying”. The Chinese government does this all the time. The funny thing is that the world media swallows this nicely, every time. I think it’s because of the “opposing views” system, where you broadcast two opposing views and that’s your news-piece: no criticism required, it’s very advanced. So a piece would go “human rights activists say China is killing people; China says that killing is illegal in China so it surely is not doing any such thing, and that it has recently funded an envoy of carebears to Africa”. This is exactly the kind of reporting in the China-vs-Google conflict, and in many others as well.

It might be that this does not explain some of the exhibited phenomena. Maybe the theories based on game-theoretic signaling or whatever they use here is important. But I would at least address this explanation first.

Compare China and the US. China misses no chance to boast its legal system, its court system, to make empty promises about human rights, etc. . The US is weary of signing treaties. I think it’s for the reasons above, very clearly in these two cases.

elad-vav February 11, 2010 at 7:08 pm

I didn’t real any of the papers, and I’m not a political scientist.

With that in mind, here’s the simplest explanation that I can come up with for why badasses sign hippie treaties while democracies don’t. I know you’re talking about quantative research, and I can’t do the work involved in testing this, but I wonder if this makes sense, and if there are any perceived phenomena this fails to explain.

I live in China, thus I’ll use China for some of my examples.

For starters, by the way, I was told China has one of the most liberal and advanced constitutions in the world. I didn’t check this, though, but it makes sense with the rest of the theory.

Anyway, here’s my uneducated view on why nations who sign treaties against torture are more likely to employ torture: When a liberal democracy violates a treaty on which it has signed, the internal penalties are severe; sometimes all hell breaks loose; the media has a field day, the citizens are furious, etc. . When a dictatorship violate a treaty, what can the citizens do? Thus, a democracy has penalties for violating treaties, while dictatorships do not. From here the conclusion is obvious.

But this still does not explain why do they sign. They sign because it’s a PR tool. They tell the world media “well, we’re signed on a treaty against torture, so we couldn’t possibly be committing torture, right, since then we’d be lying”. The Chinese government does this all the time. The funny thing is that the world media swallows this nicely, every time. I think it’s because of the “opposing views” system, where you broadcast two opposing views and that’s your news-piece: no criticism required, it’s very advanced. So a piece would go “human rights activists say China is killing people; China says that killing is illegal in China so it surely is not doing any such thing, and that it has recently funded an envoy of carebears to Africa”. This is exactly the kind of reporting in the China-vs-Google conflict, and in many others as well.

It might be that this does not explain some of the exhibited phenomena. Maybe the theories based on game-theoretic signaling or whatever they use here is important. But I would at least address this explanation first.

Compare China and the US. China misses no chance to boast its legal system, its court system, to make empty promises about human rights, etc. . The US is weary of signing treaties. I think it’s for the reasons above, very clearly in these two cases.

elad-vav February 11, 2010 at 7:08 pm

I didn’t real any of the papers, and I’m not a political scientist.

With that in mind, here’s the simplest explanation that I can come up with for why badasses sign hippie treaties while democracies don’t. I know you’re talking about quantative research, and I can’t do the work involved in testing this, but I wonder if this makes sense, and if there are any perceived phenomena this fails to explain.

I live in China, thus I’ll use China for some of my examples.

For starters, by the way, I was told China has one of the most liberal and advanced constitutions in the world. I didn’t check this, though, but it makes sense with the rest of the theory.

Anyway, here’s my uneducated view on why nations who sign treaties against torture are more likely to employ torture: When a liberal democracy violates a treaty on which it has signed, the internal penalties are severe; sometimes all hell breaks loose; the media has a field day, the citizens are furious, etc. . When a dictatorship violate a treaty, what can the citizens do? Thus, a democracy has penalties for violating treaties, while dictatorships do not. From here the conclusion is obvious.

But this still does not explain why do they sign. They sign because it’s a PR tool. They tell the world media “well, we’re signed on a treaty against torture, so we couldn’t possibly be committing torture, right, since then we’d be lying”. The Chinese government does this all the time. The funny thing is that the world media swallows this nicely, every time. I think it’s because of the “opposing views” system, where you broadcast two opposing views and that’s your news-piece: no criticism required, it’s very advanced. So a piece would go “human rights activists say China is killing people; China says that killing is illegal in China so it surely is not doing any such thing, and that it has recently funded an envoy of carebears to Africa”. This is exactly the kind of reporting in the China-vs-Google conflict, and in many others as well.

It might be that this does not explain some of the exhibited phenomena. Maybe the theories based on game-theoretic signaling or whatever they use here is important. But I would at least address this explanation first.

Compare China and the US. China misses no chance to boast its legal system, its court system, to make empty promises about human rights, etc. . The US is weary of signing treaties. I think it’s for the reasons above, very clearly in these two cases.

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