Democracy and Prisoner Treatment
Although the merits of civilizational forces may be met with some skepticism, this does not imply that all internal attributes of belligerents are irrelevant for understanding patterns of prisoner treatment. Regime type has been shown to be a key factor explaining a wide range of foreign policies involving both war and peace. The characteristics distinguishing democracies from other regimes may lead them to act in a distinct manner when prosecuting their wars as well. Existing research on regime type and wartime conduct largely follows the democratic peace tradition by distinguishing between the role played by domestic norms and the role of institutions in explaining the distinctive behavior of democracies.132 While the normative and institutional approaches are usually viewed as complementary, recent scholarship on civilian victimization argues the two variants offer diverging predictions for the conduct of democracies during
Domestic Norms as Limits on Abuse
Most scholars arguing that democracies fight their wars more humanely emphasize the particular liberal values inculcated in the political culture of democratic regimes.— Possessing norms propounding the virtues of nonviolence, democracies may be unwilling to “play rough" and employ more brutal counterinsurgency strategies.— Examining mass killings by states across interstate, civil, and colonial conflicts, Valentino et al. reason, “If democratic values promote tolerance, nonviolence, and respect for legal constraints, then democracies should wage their wars more humanely than other forms of government."— Such norms are not only embedded in the civilian leaders and their publics, but are also thought to diffuse into the military's thinking and practice, providing a frontline defense against potential abuses on the battlefield.137 Along with conduct during war, normative arguments gain further support from numerous studies finding democracies are less willing to commit human rights abuses against their own citizens up to and including some of the
most extreme forms of violence, such as genocide.—
Norms-based arguments have overwhelmingly focused on the treatment of civilians, but the same logic is consistent with properly caring for prisoners. If principles of tolerance, nonviolence, and respect for individual rights provide protections for enemy civilians, then the same should hold true for combatants. Normative arguments center on a broader process whereby states tend to translate their internal beliefs and practices externally into foreign affairs.139 In democracies, domestic political culture centers on the fundamental equality of rights among individual citizens, which they are predisposed to apply with equal vigor in their external relations.— Translating Immanuel Kant's articles of perpetual peace to the battlefield, the tendency for democracies to project domestic norms of respect for individual rights necessitates complying with all aspects of the laws of war, in particular toward enemy combatants.141 In his Second Treatise of Government, John Locke follows a similar logic in asserting that liberal principles of respect for individual rights mandate that states treat not only the adversary's civilians justly, but also their soldiers.142 The norms promoted through domestic political culture, based on fostering a respect for individual rights and adherence to norms of tolerance and nonviolence, leads to the general expectation that democracies will treat enemy prisoners on the whole in a more humane manner.
The normative approach appears to offer a compelling explanation for the conduct of democracies during war, but several concerns need to be kept in mind. Returning to the democratic peace thesis from which many regime-type arguments draw their insights, democracies are generally only expected to externalize their norms of nonviolence when facing other democracies. When dealing with other regime types, a democratic state “may feel obliged to adapt to the harsher norms or international conduct of the latter, lest it be exploited or eliminated by the nondemocratic state that takes advantage of the inherent moderation of democracies."143 Since democracies only tend to fight nondemocracies, by extension they may be expected to act in ways more similar to their autocratic counterparts. Prohibitions against violence are by no means absolute. Particularly when facing a violent adversary, democracies may find it entirely consistent with their values to respond forcefully in order to protect themselves.144
Even taken on their own terms, in numerous instances the domestic political culture distinctive to democracies appears to have offered few constraints on their conduct in times of armed conflict. Supposedly robust norms of nonviolence and respect for individual rights have not prevented democracies from waging wars of imperial conquest or engaging in covert actions to topple legitimately elected foreign governments.145 Even in cases where democracies did not personally commit atrocities, they still frequently provided indirect support to perpetrators
or stood by, allowing violence to continue unchecked.146
Democratic publics do not always reflect the liberal norms so often attributed to them and can in fact be quite bellicose, or at the very least indifferent to the suffering of outside groups.147 Belying their supposedly pacific nature, democratic publics in many cases have been quite supportive of both aggressive territorial expansion and the use of brutal methods against civilians and combatants alike.148 When facing threats to national security, democratic publics have also proved enthusiastic in supporting harsh methods against prisoners, ranging from coercive interrogation techniques to the denial of basic legal rights.149 Indeed, in times of severe political conflict democracies often willingly heighten repression against their own citizens, meaning enemy combatants should expect to receive even less mercy.150
Reflecting this more ambivalent view on regime type and wartime violence, several recent studies find democracy exerts little or no restraining effect on the treatment of civilians inside or outside of armed conflict.151 If the skeptics are correct and democracy does not reduce risks to the lives of unarmed civilians, then democratic norms are likely to exert even less restraint on the treatment of combatants who were directly engaging in battle up until their capture.