Why the ‘Stop Torture’ campaign is more important than ever

Over thirty years ago (1970s and 80s especially) the ‘Stop Torture’ campaigns of several NGOs worked to encourage the criminalization of torture and develop a more in-depth framework through which the International Community might engage with this most absolute of norms. The result: the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT) of 1984, which to date has 155 state parties and 81 signatories.

So, what happened to this vehement attempt to protect the inalienable rights of all peoples? Why is the ‘Stop Torture’ campaign still here, thirty years after we thought civil society had accepted the premise that we just don’t torture people, for whatever reason, whatever the cost? Indeed, when did statements such as ‘they probably deserve it’ and ‘make them suffer’ (ideals lobbied at me only this week) suddenly become accepted comment and seemingly override the immutable law of civilized nations?

With documents including UNCAT implemented to reinforce the prohibition and indeed criminalize the use of torture we should feel safe and protected, yet nearly 50% of those polled by Amnesty International are living in fear of being tortured. A justified fear when one considers the statistics from countries party to the UNCAT demonstrate an unwavering commitment to the use of torture rather than the absolute prohibition.

Indeed the figures detailing the 5 years preratification versus the 5 years postratification of UNCAT (1984) show very little change in the use and frequency of torture by countries who had ratified it. Worryingly, the small change (less than 10%) is in fact an increase in the use of torture, not the decrease that one might expect: this, as of January 2014. Suspiciously, most countries have their own individual state definitions of torture, definitions that arguably fall too far short of and contravene the expectations of UNCAT, just one aspect of state action and rhetoric that might account for the skewed figures as noted.

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The UNCAT effect. Year 0 marks the year of ratification. CRI Torture score marks frequent torture at 0 and no torture at 2. Note that had UNCAT been successful and instances of torture decreased, the curve in the chart postratification would have moved up, not down.

More and more of the general population now publicly admit to a belief that torture is justified in some contexts. Whilst 50% fear torture according to figures from Amnesty International, conversely, on average over one third strongly or somewhat agree with its use (note that there is a larger majority in some countries), with many academics seeing value in (and arguing for) universal states of exception governing the prohibition of torture post 9/11. In fact, one might argue, with exceptionalist theories from leading academics, journalists and law professionals worldwide (including for example: John Yoo; Alan Dershowitz: Charles Krauthammer; Jean Bethke Elshtain) we are potentially worse off now than we have ever been.

Herein lies the biggest problem: exceptionalists believe in states of exception to an absolute rule, therefore undermining its authority, which in turn might very easily allow for an out of control problem where torture is the standard and the exception quickly becomes the rule with the systematic abuse of children and adults, civilians and prisoners (and all those in between): One need only look to Guantanamo Bay for this, where children as young as thirteen are detained and anyone can be held for anything up to 11 years without trial nor reason, all the while being force-fed until they vomit blood or perhaps even Uzbekistan, where the opposition are disappeared and their children raped and beaten.[1] Such exceptionalist theories can accept a certain amount of liability for the flawed idea that torture works for anything other than tyranny and for the premise that utilitarian hypothetical examples are anything but reliable or humane.

In the thirty years since UNCAT (1984), on the face of it at least, we have not really moved any further forward with regard to the prohibition of torture worldwide. I would argue that we have taken a few too many steps back. In the past five years at least 141 countries have used torture, and the fear of torture is unprecedented (as are the numbers associated with support for the use of it). That being said, torture is for good reason, still absolutely forbidden by the law of civilized nations and whilst as a society we may have lost our way, it is more important than ever that the international community strives to adhere to its moral duties and legal obligations and it is certainly imperative that the ‘Stop Torture’ campaign continues until states really do stop torture, quite simply because freedom from torture is unequivocally paramount to individual human dignity and free civil society.

1. Murray, C. (2006) Murder in Samarkand. Mainstream Publishing


Bethan Judge is a PhD student at Cardiff University with particular interests in IR theory and human rights.


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