In spite of an emerging consensus around the significance of human rights, political repression remains an ever-present reality. Over the past few decades, a scientific research program has developed to explain why states abuse their citizens' human rights. But despite the explanatory power of this model, its utility for predicting future abuses remains limited. As a result, policy interventions are essentially reactive, with policy makers responding to observed violations of human rights rather than taking steps to proactively prevent human rights abuses anticipated in the future.

Developling a model that is better able to forecast future violations of human rights requires delving deeper into the organizations responsible for human rights violations and directly investigating the decision-making processes that ultimately produce political repression. To do so, this project investigates the internal workings of the Guatemalan security apparatus and the violation of human rights that took place during the country's civil war. The study provides both theoretical and methodological improvements over the leading studies in repression research. The theory identifies how repressive bureaucracies, such as the police, military, or special forces, generate and update expectations of the potential success or failure of repressive actions.

These theoretical claims are evaluated using unique data on the inner workings of the Guatemalan security apparatus. The Guatemalan National Police Archive, upon which this research is based, is a trove of more than eight million uncensored records collected and composed by the police during the civil war. The Archive's collection contains unprecedented detail on both potential and actual targets of political repression leading to violations of human rights.

With regards to broader impacts, this study will generate practical knowledge that can be applied to limit conflict and prevent political violence.

Project Report

This research investigated the use of political repression by the Guatemalan government between 1975-1985. During this period, the government killed an estimated 100,000-200,000 of their citizens. The research carried out with the support of this NSF grant aims to uncover the causes behind such gross violations of human rights, as well as develop a more general theory of state repression that can help us to understand this important phenomona. To study the topic, the study investigated a unique collection of records produced by the Guatemalan National Police during this time period and uncovered by human rights groups in 2006. What is unique about this collection of documents, and the Archive that currently houses them, is that there was no oversight by tthe police or other government officials in deciding how to release or preserve the documents. The project read and analyzed more thatn 200,000 of the documents and generated some new understandingabout why governments abuse their civilians. When many people think about why governments engagein repressive behavior, the explanation that commonly come to mind have to do with state defence against threats emerging from social movements and insurgencies challenging the government authority. What the current study found is that the repression that took place in Guatemala was often far removed from the actual threats of social movements and insurgents. Instead the government often engaged in repression against non-violent, non-threatening groups whom they feared might develop into challengers sometime in the future. The govenrment repressed indivdiuals organizing around comunist or other radical ideals even when those indivdiuals were simply meeting in private, and not directly threatening the governmnent. There are significant implications for how we understand repression and human rights. As shown governments repress not simply to protect political order against rival challengers, but to censor out particular segments of society who's politics fall outside the realm of what the government deems acceptable.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame
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