Torture – An unnecessary evil

26 June 2014

As conflicts rage across the globe, torture is being deployed on an industrial scale. For five decades, Amnesty International has led the charge against the abuse worldwide – now we’re ramping up our campaign for the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

Today marks the 17th International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, 30 years since the UN adopted its Convention against Torture. One would have hoped that, three decades into the battle against torture, Amnesty International would have fewer victims to support.

It’s true that many of the 155 governments who have joined the Convention against Torture have taken concrete, practical steps to reduce torture and other ill-treatment drastically.

But reports of torture and other ill-treatment continue to stream into our offices daily. In a world traumatised by the threat of terrorism, attitudes to torture appear to be increasingly ambivalent.  Fear of powerful armed groups in countries like Nigeria, Iraq and Libya is softening international resolve when it comes to enforcing the ban on torture. And the need to maintain security forces’ loyalty is stifling investigations of abuse in places such as Ukraine.

Speak to most people on the street about torture, and they’ll agree the practice should be outlawed. Indeed, that’s a principle we’ve found 82 per cent of people around the world support. Make the scenario a little more concrete, however, and attitudes start to shift. The same survey found 36 per cent of those polled believe torture is sometimes necessary to protect the public.

How many Nigerians would sanction torturing a Boko Haram suspect to bring back their schoolgirls – without thinking how often suspects in Nigeria are wrongly accused? How many Ukrainians would defend the ill-treatment of a Russian fighter, suspected of fomenting unrest within their borders – while forgetting the victims from Maidan? We can’t rely on authorities to pick and choose. Even if they always got the right suspects, the grim reality of torture is too barbaric to countenance. The prohibition of torture must be absolute.

Unfortunately, torture in conflict is only part of the global picture. In a world where prejudice, discrimination, oppression and violence are still rife, people are tortured because they are poor, because they are different, because they dare speak against their government. Permitting torture in one circumstance gives governments a pretext to widen the net and target others.

Launching our flagship global campaign last month, Stop Torture, we discovered that, from the 155 states who have vowed to stamp out torture when they signed the Convention, at least 79 of them carried out torture or other ill-treatment in 2014.

Looking back over a five year period, Amnesty International received reports of torture in at least 141 countries – the vast majority of those on which we work.

Alfreda Disbarro from the Philippines is one of five torture survivors Amnesty International members are focusing on as part of the campaign. She told us how a senior police officer pinned her against a wall, punched her repeatedly in the stomach and face, hit her with a club, poked his fingers into her eyes, slapped her, forced a mop into her mouth and banged her head against the wall.

One month after the Stop Torture campaign launched, the Philippine National Police’s Internal Affairs Service (IAS) has opened an investigation into Alfreda’s case. They will investigate four police officers for grave misconduct, following a letter from Amnesty International supporters.

Ali Aarrass is also profiled in our campaign. Spanish authorities extradited him to Morocco despite fears he would be tortured there. He says he was picked up by intelligence officers and taken to a secret detention centre, where they electrocuted his testicles, beat the soles of his feet and hanged him by his wrists for hours on end.

But on 21 May, Moroccan authorities opened an investigation into these reports of torture – following a 19 May decision by the UN Committee against Torture. The Committee found several articles of the Convention against Torture had been violated, and asked the authorities to investigate and report back within 90 days.

At the end of a visit to the country on 29 May, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, announced that King Mohamed VI had told her that he would not tolerate torture.

These are small steps, but we can build upon them. International attention can make a difference. This week more than 50 Amnesty International offices will mobilize their members and activists on every continent to take part in a worldwide action to support Alfreda, Ali and others like them in their quests for justice.

From a football stadium in Mali to the doorstep of the President’s office in Ukraine, Amnesty International supporters around the world will stand in solidarity with victims to demand that governments take concerted action to stamp out torture.

Tens of thousands of the organization’s members will take part in a series of creative actions. Schoolboys with pliers, women wrapped in plastic and protesters wielding mops will turn up outside Embassies – demonstrating different tools and torture techniques. A giant musical instrument made from tools of torture will be played in Lisbon and blindfolded statues will appear on the streets of Berlin, Rabat and Reykjavik.

We’ll need these activists again next year, but we’re hoping they’ll be turning out in solidarity with fewer victims. Torture doesn’t have to be inevitable. Torture can be stopped. Help stop it with us.