ICYMI (In Case You Missed It), the following work was presented at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA). The presentation, titled “The Onset of Repressive Spells, 1976-2007,” was a part of the session “Genocide, Politicide, and Government Mass Killing” on Friday September 4th, 2015.
As state-sponsored repression and political violence continue to affect people’s lives across the world, the latest work of Department of Political Science Professor and Center for Political Studies faculty member Christian Davenport and Benjamin Appel, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University, seeks to determine how it can be stopped.
Professors Davenport and Appel introduce a new framework where state repression is conceived and measured as a ‘spell’. That is, a sustained campaign of higher-level state sponsored repressive behavior such as imprisonment without trial, disappearances, and torture.
They turn their efforts to an examination of how to stop such large-scale systematic state repression once it is underway and which of the most common efforts used to end repressive spells are most successful: democratization, military interventions, economic sanctions, naming/shaming, international law and preferential trade agreements.
Using a unique dataset data containing 239 repression spells that produce a total of 2,527 observations (i.e., spell years) between 1976 and 2007, their work investigates what can stop the duration of a high-level repressive spell. Specifically, they focus on the probability that repression ends in a year, given that it has survived up to that year.
They find that large-scale state repression is unlikely to end unless the process producing the it is significantly impacted, which is more likely to result from democratization than from other common methods of curtailing state repression. In fact, a repression spell is 111% more likely to end when a state has recently democratized, usually within the last five years.
Democratization works directly through replacing decision-makers and fundamentally altering the way that they are selected and held accountable. Moreover, it indirectly encourages repressive governments to reduce repression by shifting the perception of popular accountability maintained by political actors.
Their results suggest that democratization is the only process that is consistently able to do stop large-scale repressive spells once underway. Additionally, democratic changes are prompted by non-violent direct action but these activities have no direct impact on spells themselves. In contrast, the international factors that are frequently highlighted in the media and among policy practitioners have essentially no impact on spell termination. These findings significantly challenge existing policies advocated by nations and NGOs around the world, calling for a re-evaluation of policies for stopping ongoing, large-scale state repression.
The real-world implications of these findings are critical and suggest that to stop state repressions external political actors including policymakers, activists, and academics should pay more attention to a “bottom-up” approach, including supporting and facilitating democratic transitions, as well as backing nonviolent movements. Military interventions and economic sanctions are not likely to yield successful results.