Amnesty Writers’ Club is a new initiative launched by the University Observer and Amnesty International UCD to showcase the best student writing on human rights. This issue, Rosa Walker looks at the modern world’s continued use of torture
Gerard David’s 1498 painting depicts the flaying of a man accused of corruption. It was hung in Bruges town hall as a deterrent. Today we regard this as a reminder of the barbarism of the Middle Ages, when physical torture was common.
“Lucky that we live in more civilised times,” is what you may be thinking. In fact, the reality is far from comforting.
Between January 2009 and May 2013 alone, Amnesty International received reports on torture in 141 countries. Brutal, barbaric methods of torture, like we see in this painting, are a part of the present, not just the past. Although torture was outlawed by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights international law, torture has been flouted by many authorities around the world. The 1984 Convention against Torture (CAT) has been adopted by 155 countries, but Amnesty International has reported that 79 of these countries tortured individuals in 2014 alone. Moreover, 32 UN member states have not adopted CAT. In an Amnesty International survey of 21,000 people in 21 countries, 44% stated that they still live in fear of this horrific abuse.
Torture, as definied by CAT, is any extreme suffering or pain, physical or mental, inflicted as a method of punishment and as a way to interrogate, obtain information, or force people into confession. Between 2013 and 2014, Amnesty International recorded a minimum of 27 techniques of torture used worldwide, many of which have been used systematically for years, from beating, rape, mock executions, and stabbing to victims having their joints drilled and many other vile methods.
Recent examples are particularly horrifying. In Mexico, since 2000, more than 7,000 torture complaints have been made to the country’s own Human Rights Commission. Forms of torture have included beating, rape, suffocation and the use of electric shocks.
In countries where homosexuality is illegal, such as Cameroon and Zambia, individuals suspected of having engaged in gay sex have been subjected to forcible anal examinations.
In April 2013, three individuals in North Darfur, Sudan had their right hands removed after being charged of stealing cooking oil, after a trial where they had no legal representation. A man arrested in Brazil in July 2014 died as a consequence of torture carried out by Brazilian police authorities after being illegally detained.
Former countries of the Soviet Union have used torture methods such as beatings, rape, forced suffocation, suspension from ceiling hooks and many others. Earlier this year, a “wheel of torture” was discovered at a police safe house in the Philippines. Police officers were using it as a “fun way” to decide how to torture detainees.
To write this off as an issue confined to countries outside the western world is sadly mistaken. Many countries in what is considered the “civilised” world have been guilty of dreadful examples of torture and ill-treatment as well. Although the current Spanish government categorically denies the use of torture, the Euskal Memoria Foundation has reported over 9,600 cases of torture in the Basque Country in the last 50 years.
The United States military and intelligence personnel have also routinely used torture and ill-treatment of prisoners in recent conflicts. These include the degrading treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, justified by the USA in the context of its “war on terror”, and on prisoners at Guantanamo in the form of force-feeding, which the UN Human Rights Commission has defined as torture. The technique of waterboarding, which involves pouring water over the head to create the sensation of drowning or suffocation, was used by the CIA to interrogate Al Qaeda suspects, and although the US authorities only admitted to three instances in 2003 and 2004, on 15 October 2008 it was reported that the Bush administration had issued a secret memo explicitly endorsing waterboarding and other torture techniques.
It’s also not so long since the United Kingdom used sensory deprivation and other forms of torture to interrogate suspects in Northern Ireland. The “advantage” of such torture techniques from the interrogators’ point of view is that while they can create incredible pain, stress and anguish, they leave no physical evidence.
Torture has also been documented in other parts of the European Union, with some countries failing to carry out effective investigations of joint guilt in torture executed in counter-terror operations, led by the US.
Another major issue here is the practice of “extraordinary rendition” whereby so-called “civilised” countries transfer a prisoner to another country to be tortured. According to former CIA officer Bob Baer, “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.”
In addition to the humanitarian issues, torture can have a negative impact on the rule of law, as we saw in the UK in the case of Abu Qatada. Confessions and evidence obtained through torture are unsafe because a person subjected to physical pain or mental stress is likely to say anything s/he believes will end his suffering. In 2008 the UK Court of Appeal ruled that Abu Qatada could not be returned to Jordan for trial as there was a strong probability that evidence obtained by torture might be used , which would be in breach of the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. This led to many years of legal wrangling.
Amnesty International’s Stop Torture campaign involves initiatives to raise awareness, lobby governments and show support for victims and survivors of torture. Our position is crystal clear: torture is barbaric and inhumane, it is banned under international law, it corrodes the rule of law and undermines the criminal justice system. It can therefore never be justified.
Governments often choose to invest more effort in covering up or denying cases of torture than they do investigating complaints. This is unacceptable. Torture is not a just a thing of the past. Nor is it just a regional problem. It is a global tragedy that needs to stop. Together, we can take action and put an end to it.