Torture and the limits of democratic institutions

Courtenay R. Conrad, Daniel W. Hill, Will H. Moore

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


What are the limits of democracy’s positive influence on human rights? In this article, we argue that contested elections and powerful courts provide leaders with different incentives with regard to hiding torture. Because government torture is generally targeted at individuals that voters find threatening, institutions that reflect public opinion – like electoral contestation – are associated with higher levels of government abuse that leave scars on the victim’s body. Other institutions – like powerful courts – protect the rights of political minorities. Leaders in countries with powerful courts prefer plausible deniability of rights violations and consequently employ higher levels of clean torture, which leaves no scars. We test our hypotheses using data from the Ill-Treatment and Torture (ITT) Data Collection Project that distinguish between Amnesty International (AI) allegations of scarring and clean torture. We employ an undercount negative binomial that accounts for AI’s (in)ability to obtain information about torture. The model assumes that some incidents of torture go unreported and allows the extent of underreporting to vary across countries/years. Estimates from the model yield considerable statistical and substantive support for our hypotheses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3-17
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Peace Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018


  • courts
  • elections
  • human rights
  • institutions
  • torture

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Safety Research
  • Political Science and International Relations


Dive into the research topics of 'Torture and the limits of democratic institutions'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this