Torture Prevention in Latin America

Together with Thomas Pegram (UCL Institute of Global Governance), I am currently developing a research agenda on torture prevention. More specifically, our research is concerned with the question of what factors contribute to reducing the risk of torture and other ill-treatment across weakly institutionalised democratic and autocratic settings in Latin America.  The study of torture has gained prominence in recent years in the social science turn in human rights scholarship, in particular the study of the (disputed) influence of human rights agreements such as the UN Convention Against Torture. Social scientific inquiry into the effects of international torture prevention instruments has generated significant insights into why and under what conditions states ratify human rights protective treaties and optional protocols. Relatively little attention, however, has been given to questions of these international instruments actually work in practice, and when and why they matter for preventing torture violations on the ground.

The region of Latin America is an especially instructive domain for evaluating the phenomena of torture over time and across variably stable democratic regimes. Many countries in the region have emerged from protracted periods of authoritarian rule, armed conflict and systematic human rights violations over the past 30 years, including the widespread use of torture. The legacy effects of gross human rights violations continue to resonate powerfully among the new democracies in Latin America. Compared to other regions of the world, Latin America displays a robust record of ratification of relevant international instruments in the area of torture prevention. However, the prevalence of torture in contemporary Latin America remains alarmingly high.

In the broad area of the study of torture prevention interventions Tom and I collaborate on two distinct yet overlapping research projects. First, we have developed a project on National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and Torture Prevention in Latin America, which was initially funded by a grant from the Human Rights and Democracy Programme of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The purpose of this research project is to strengthen the capacity of NHRIs in Latin America – Defensorías del Pueblo, Procuradurías y Comisiones de los Derechos Humanos – to engage with the Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council to promote State implementation of international torture prevention standards (CAT and OP-CAT). Updates and related research news are available on the project dedicated website.

Second, as part of a major global study on the impact of torture prevention interventions led by Dr Richard Carver (project details here) funded by the Association for the Prevention of Torture, we are currently (January 2014 – January 2015) conducting detailed research on two Latin American case studies: Chile and Peru. Together with Karinna Fernández (Chile) and Nataly Herrera (Peru), we engage in a political and socio-legal study of the evolution of torture and other ill-treatment from 1985 to the present day across the two country cases, with a particular focus on what factors have contributed to that evolution and the external influence of international prohibition frameworks. The research draws on both qualitative and available quantitative data through a mixed method research design with the aim to present a highly contextualised picture of measures and mechanisms which contribute to lessening the risk of torture and other ill-treatment.

With the objective to build on the findings of the structured paired-case study of Chile and Peru we were recently awarded a small research grant from UCL’s Centre for Humanities Interdisciplinary Research Projects (CHIRP) from October 2014 onwards.

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