Why “never again” happens again and again: Stopping state repression

Post developed by Katie Brown and Christian Davenport.

ICYMI (In Case You Missed It), the following work was presented at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA).  The presentation, titled “The Domestic and/or International Determinants of State Repression: Examining Spells,” was a part of the Conflict Processes panel “Determinants of State Repression” on Sunday August 31st, 2014.

Since the Holocaust, one of the most important purported tasks of humankind has been to never again let such horrific violations of human rights occur. This mission came with a three-part strategy of preventing, stopping, and prosecuting such violations.

And yet, again and again, grave human rights violations continue to happen: Guatemala, Tibet, Rwanda, and Syria are just a few examples. Christian Davenport, Faculty Associate in the Center for Political Studies (CPS) and Professor of Political Science, along with Benjamin J. Appel of Michigan State University, have examined 220 instances of extreme state repression in recent decades.

The first analysis of its kind and part of a series which will ultimately be published in a book, the 220 examples included in the database occurred between 1976 and 2004. Each scored above a 3 on the Political Terror Scale. Level 3 is characterized by political imprisonment, including executions, no trials, indefinite sentences, and brutality. This escalates to level 4 when civil and political rights violations extend to most of the population and “murders, disappearances, and torture are a common part of life.” The scale maxes out at 5, at which point the entire population is affected by brutality, as the leader will stop at nothing to achieve ideological goals.

The authors clarify that, while it is the leader’s goals enacted, they do not do their own dirty work. Rather, this role is allocated to principals (e.g., generals), who in turn give the orders and necessary resources to agents (e.g., soldiers and police officers). These agents enact the brutality on victims. The flow chart below delineates this process.

Assigning the Dirty Work of State Repression

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The authors’ goal in analyzing the 220 cases of state repression: understand what stops the repression. Davenport and Appel look at both domestic and international factors. International approaches include economic sanctions, military action, public condemnation, and Preferential Trade Agreements designed to make it harder for the repressive government to obtain the means of repression. Increasing democracy within the borders constitutes the domestic answer to repression.

After analyzing the 220 cases, the authors find essentially no support for the international efforts to stop repression, though Preferential Trade Agreements do exhibit an influence. The more powerful and appropriate approach, however, concerns democratization from within. The authors conclude, “If one is trying to stop state repression, then they should consider how best to move the government toward full democracy.” But, the authors caution that they best way to stop state repression is to prevent it in the first place.

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