Day: February 16, 2010

Dictators, Torture Conventions, and Signaling

Charli linked to a great round-up of theories circulating that propose to answer the rather interesting question of why countries that sign the Convention Against Torture seem to have a greater likelihood of committing torture.

One working paper in particular , by James Hollyer and Peter Rosendorff of NYU, has caused quite a stir. They propose that dictators use the signing of such a treaty as a costly signal to domestic opposition groups that they fully intend to continue torturing those that oppose their regime. How does this work?

We argue that authoritarian states ratify human rights treaties explicitly because they do not intend to comply. And it is important to those signatories that all observers understand that they have no intention of complying at the time of accession. The logic, while counterintuitive, is straightforward: an elite facing threats from a domestic opposition can mitigate these threats by engaging in torture. If there is any additional cost to the elite of signing and then being found to torture, the act of signing the agreement signals to the opposition the strength of the elite’s commitment to remaining in power. Accession is a signal to the opposition of the very high value the elite places on holding onto power and its willingness to use torture if necessary. On observing the government’s accession, the opposition – now better informed about the value the elite places on holding power – will rationally reduce its anti-regime activities. The government continues to torture, but will torture less. On the other hand a regime that doesn’t sign shows itself to be vulnerable to the added costs associated with the use of torture. Thus, the opposition will increase e orts to remove the regime on seeing that the government does not sign.

It’s an intriguing theory, and the authors do a good job of linking their claims to empirical evidence. However, I am skeptical regarding their proposed mechanisms and whether they actually obtain:

1) If it is well known that the conversion rate, if you will, for bringing accused torturers to justice in connection with the CAT is quite low, then why would a domestic audience see this as a credible signal? Any dictator could sign the treaty regardless of whether their type was of a moderate or an extreme–if the signal could easily be sent by either type it can’t differentiate. Additionally, the more credible signal is one that actually demonstrates the will and, more importantly, the capability of the sender. In this case, if a dictator’s real aim and desire is to signal that they will do whatever it takes to stay in power why not just make an example of revolutionaries, rebels, etc? Show that you have the will and capability to do whatever it takes to stay in power (thinking here of Barbara Walter’s work on why some states negotiate with separatist groups and others choose violent repression).

2) Given that, I am more inclined to see it as a low-cost, public relations move to placate domestic and international critics. By signing the CAT a dictator can point to his/her efforts to play by the same rules as other governments and to treat their citizens humanly. The next time they are getting reamed out at some summit or UN meeting they can say “yes, but, we did sign the CAT”. They don’t really need to send a credible signal with the move, just create a useful tool in their public relations arsenal.

3) Additionally, violent, repressive dictators are less likely to fall from power. Therefore, they are less likely to be placed in a position where they could be prosecuted for their actions under the CAT. Combine this fact with the potential usefulness of signing the CAT from a public relations standpoint and you have another potential explanation aside from signaling. Moreover, it would also explain why ‘moderate’ or ‘competitive’ dictatorships are less likely to sign the CAT–precisely because their are more vulnerable to losing power and could therefore be brought to justice under the CAT. Given that the public relations gains are modest compared to the potential costs of actually being prosecuted, moderate dictators would be less likely to sign.

Just my initial thoughts. In general, the data is quite intriguing as is Hollyer and Rosendorff’s theory–certainly a puzzle well worth exploring.

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Google On The Defense

Google is backpedaling amid the buzz about Buzz, apologizing for its premature launch and the privacy issues it created, and promising to make Buzz more like other social networking sites, where users can choose the friends they associate with.

The brou-ha-ha goes to show that “privacy is still a social norm,” to contradict the claim of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg last year that people these days want the whole world to see what they put online. It’s heartening to see Google acknowledge this openly and take immediate remedial steps. Will they be enough? Keep watching to find out…

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Who Dat? Old Chap!


The International Studies Association meeting is getting underway shortly in New Orleans. I’m not sure who’s very strange idea it was to combine academics and “Mardi Gras” – (I can’t wait to see the “Professors Gone Wild! Video…. Actually, I can… ) but we’re here and letting the bon temps rouler – as it were.

Of course this year’s Mardi Gras has a very important unofficial theme – the New Orleans Saints – who won the Superbowl this year. There are gold fleur de lis everywhere and on everything. I ran into a publisher last night who swore that he ran into a group of people who hadn’t stopped celebrating the victory since last Sunday.

Yet the joy of the Saints isn’t for New Orleans alone. It seemed that much of the Western world was cheering for them to win too (outside of Indianapolis, I guess.) Even in the UK, the Times posted a video (linked above) with their very posh writers saying “Who Dat?” to the camera.

I think this follows on my (slightly cranky) post this weekend which suggested that no one outside of North America was really interested in the Olympics, largely because Canada is boring (aside from other geopolitical considerations). Unlike the Beijing Olympics, there is no story behind the story.

But the same was not true for this year’s Superbowl, which NBC claims was the most watched TV event ever. (Although not everyone agrees.)Internationally, the Saints were so popular because they were seen as literally embodying New Orleans and its rise after Hurricane Katrina. The Superbowl in the UK was not just some strange American game broadcast on the BBC at 11pm. It was a highly symbolic match which represented a passionate American story… the kind the Europeans love to sink their teeth into.

The same thing could be argued about the New England Patriots when won the Superbowl in 2002. The nationalistically named team became symbolic of America’s rise after 9/11 and the imagery of that Superbowl was deliberately tied to 9/11. This may actually be a significant difference with the last Superbowl – that much of the linkage to Katrina was not as deliberate or politically motivated. Rather it this year it seems to have been done so by a media trying to push a story.

So, do we need stories behind the stories in order to better appreciate sports? Could the same be said about chess matches in the Cold War – where entire nations nervously bit their nails while uber-nerds of the superpowers battled it out? (I’m assuming that without the Cold War tensions that 99% of the attention to those matches probably wouldn’t have been there.)

I’m uncertain, but on the surface, it certainly seems to help.

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