The CIRI Index of Physical Integrity Rights measures a government’s overall level of respect for four rights: torture, extrajudicial killing, political imprisonment, disappearance. The index ranges from 0 (no respect for any of these four rights) to 8 (full respect for all four of these rights). In 2008-2009, the world saw an overall average increase in these rights of .047. However, a reversal of this improvement was seen from 2009-2010, with it’s overall average decline in respect of -.031…An important part of this overall decline in respect for physical integrity rights comes from a continuing degradation, globally, of respect for the right not to be tortured. For example, 2009-2010 saw 17 countries engage in more torture, while only 8 engaged in less torture…This trend in the greater use of torture is not a post-9/11 phenomenon, however. The chart below shows the increased use of torture beginning in the early 1980s. The extent of the drop in respect for this right differed by region and is seen to be particularly acute in Africa.
This is particularly interesting when combined with the fact that, according to CIRI, political imprisonment has become less common over the same time period. Off the top of my head, I would probably attribute these changes to substitution of one form of repression for the other. It seems likely that, as information on human rights abuses has become more widespread, governments have engaged less in the physical integrity rights violation that is the hardest to publicly deny (political imprisonment) and more in a form of repression that is much more clandestine (torture). This seems especially plausible to me since one of the world’s greatest publicizers of human rights abuses, Amnesty International, began its life as an organization primarily committed to supporting and publicizing the plight of “prisoners of conscience” worldwide. Over time, the cost of engaging in political imprisonment may very well have become high enough to make other, less visible forms of repression more attractive.
Of course, there are many alternative explanations for these changes, and there is a lot of work that remains to be done in terms of developing theories of state repression. This simply stands out as one of the many empirical puzzles that remain to be solved for those of us interested in studying government respect for human rights. In the meantime, check out the CIRI Human Rights Data at http://www.humanrightsdata.org and the CIRI blog at http://humanrightsdata.blogspot.com/.