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Navigating the minefield of working with perpetrators

Judgments about when collaboration becomes cooptation are too easily made in the abstract, based on moral tastes rather than evidence. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on engaging with perpetrators. Español

Why would someone committed to stopping torture ever work with perpetrators, or with organizations that perpetrate torture? Doing so is fraught with moral hazards, the most serious of which is being coopted, contributing to the myth of reform and failing to challenge the constellations of power that perpetuate abuse. And yet, judgments about when collaboration becomes cooptation and when it is smart strategy are too easily made in the abstract, and on the basis of our moral tastes rather than our empirically informed judgements. Ultimately, the choice to “work from the inside” needs to be based on sound reasoning and empirical evidence.

One form of reasoning justifying this strategy is the following: preventing pathological acts like torture requires transforming the institutional contexts that authorize, permit and create opportunities for them; and, in turn, authentic and sustainable institutional transformation requires working from the inside as a necessary, though by no means sufficient condition.

Studies on the effectiveness of human rights interventions show very mixed results.

Let’s look for a moment at what we know about what works in torture prevention. Unfortunately, and as social scientists who have conducted meta-evaluations have shown, studies on the effectiveness of human rights interventions show very mixed results. Perhaps the most popularized strategy is to criminalize torture and punish perpetrators, an approach that certainly appeals to our moral intuitions about the dangers of impunity and our emotional responses to people who commit such heinous act. A recent study on efforts to prevent torture over the last thirty years provides us with empirical evidence that when enforced, laws criminalizing torture do contribute to its reduction. And yet this same study showed that across a range of jurisdictions, from authoritarian regimes to liberal democracies, even where excellent laws are on the books, they are rarely enforced when it comes to punishing perpetrators in the security sector. Almost always, ending impunity has remained a goal beyond the reach of institutional realities.


Flickr/Dhammika Heenpella (Some rights reserved)

Organizational change expert John Kotter insists that leadership is critical, but change cannot be simply decreed from above or the outside; it requires deep and broad support across an organization.


That same study indicated that what was effective was altering the conditions of detention, a finding that points to a broader point about prevention. Preventing pathological acts requires changing the conditions that authorize, permit, legitimate and create opportunities for those acts. Impunity is one of those conditions, but not the most important one. We now have several decades of social science research, going back to Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford Prison experiments and Milgram’s electric shock experiments, indicating that situation matters more than disposition when it comes to institutional violence. Settings where detainees are dehumanized, where strong ideologies justify violence in the name of the nation or community, and where conformity and obedience are rewarded with belonging and other social goods are ripe for abuse. Individuals’ ethical commitments may offer insufficient defense against going along with violence, especially in closed institutions. And this means that simply trying to strengthen individuals’ knowledge about, or commitment to human rights (through human rights training for example) is unlikely to have much impact. What needs to change are the institutional conditions that shape individuals’ moral orientations, judgments and actions.

The team that I worked with on a project seeking to prevent torture  in security sector organizations in Nepal and Sri Lanka took these insights into the importance of transforming institutional contexts as the starting point of our work. In this context, the organizational change expert John Kotter insists that leadership is critical, but change cannot be simply decreed from above or the outside; it requires deep and broad support across an organization. More specifically to our field, policing expert David Bailey argues, “the grain of the organization must be made to work with, and not against, reform”. Criminological studies on security sector reform also show that imposed changes provoke resistance, and that security sector organizations especially, being closed and powerful, are adept at resisting reforms that they see as imposed on them, closing ranks and creating detours to keep their cultures and privileges in place.

All of this suggests that one necessary (though not sufficient condition) for preventing torture will be working “from the inside” to change the processes, structures and cultures of security sector organizations. At the same time though, and this enormously, complicates the work, security sector organizations do not operate in isolation; far from it, they are embedded in a broader social, political and economic ecology that includes the political regime, the criminal justice system, ideologies and the cultures and social dynamics of surrounding communities. How and where security sector organizations are located within this broader ecology will, to a significant extent, shape the opportunities for, or constraints on transforming their structures, processes and cultures. Where, for example, police are completely subordinated to other institutional spheres like the political regime, there will be enormous constraints on achieving anything more than superficial reform. Where they enjoy a privileged place in the overall field of power, shift in the practices and norms of security sector organizations can occasion broader social and political transformations. Where they are reasonably autonomous, reform efforts might bring about changes to practices at the local level; perhaps limited, but when one is talking about stopping torture, not to be scoffed at.

These questions about where, within the overall social and political field, it is in fact possible to bring about effective change are not ones that can be asked in the abstract. Preconceptions, based on abstract theories about where one really brings about change, or based on activists’ moral tastes about whom they would prefer to work with are not up to the task. They demand close, specific empirical work in situ and across the different spaces—work attentive to the politics, or the dynamics of power and institutional relationships in the particular society in question. And it is this empirically grounded analysis that will furnish the only ethical answer to the question of whether to work with perpetrator organizations. The rub is that this takes getting in there and finding out. Even then, as has long been the case, good and reasonable people will disagree about the ethics and effectiveness of working from the inside or the outside, and even about how to draw those lines.


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