On May 13th, Amnesty International (AI) introduced Stop Torture, a new initiative aiming to hold accountable those responsible for allowing torture to flourish 30 years after 155 states signed on to the UN Convention Against Torture (the Convention) in 1984. The campaign targets state authorized torture of all kinds, though it will not address the use of torture by criminal gangs, demonstrators, terrorists, or other unofficial groups that occur outside state custody. The objective is to enforce the international laws and agreements that have existed for decades by insisting that governments be held to their commitments. The campaign is focused in five countries where, according to a press release from AI Secretary General Shalil Shetty, the organization can “contribute to long-lasting change through concerted advocacy, activism, and media pressure” to encourage reforms.
The report provides a detailed overview of the nature of the problem, outlining the global legal frameworks currently in place to address torture and providing summaries of the organization’s relevant investigations in five regions of the world. AI promises that as the campaign continues, specific reports with detailed recommendations for each case will also be produced. In the report, AI urges all governments to allow prisoners access to legal counsel soon after their arrest, as well as giving them access to medical care. The organization also calls for more independent investigations into the issue, and the establishment and sincere application of safeguards against torture.
According to a report released alongside news of the campaign, governments in 79 countries who signed on to the Convention still use torture as an investigative tool or punishment, and 40 UN members have not signed onto the Convention at all. In total, Amnesty received reports of torture from 140 countries. A survey conducted by AI to test global opinion on issues pertaining to torture found that almost 40% of respondents thought that torture was justifiable under certain circumstances, though over 80% believed that there should be clear laws banning torture. The highest tolerance for torture was found in China and India, where 74% of respondents agreed that torture could be justified. Almost half of the 21,000 respondents from 21 countries said that they would feel vulnerable to torture if taken into custody in their home country. These findings reveal a widespread normalization and routinization of torture, as well as the hypocrisy of governments that allow or encourage torture in practice despite publicly supporting the ban.
It is incredible that so many people can feel that torture should be banned by law, but also that torture is an acceptable or even a necessary part of law enforcement by the state. What is most disturbing about it is the implication that some people believe that the state has the right to violate the law. Sara MacNeice, manager of the Stop Torture Campaign, points to desensitization as a source of these attitudes. In countries where torture is accepted as a fact of life or a standard operating procedure, international laws banning the act cease to be relevant. According to MacNeice, people in countries where torture is exceptionally prevalent, such as Nigeria, Morocco, and Uzbekistan, are often unaware of their rights and, unless they have encountered torture first-hand, may become “desensitized to the realities around the illegality of torture and that it is completely unacceptable.”
Often, governments justify torture tactics as being necessary to secure valuable intelligence information. Apart from the obvious damage to victim’s lives, torture has been proven repeatedly throughout history to produce false or worthless intelligence. Coercing people into falsely confessing is in fact an excellent way to end a security investigation without arresting the parties responsible for threatening security in the first place. Torture is a terrible tool for obtaining accurate information, but it can help obtain “confessions” that make inept or corrupt officials looks successful. The Stop Torture campaign is an admirable effort to reduce global suffering and strengthen international law, but torture itself is a result of poor oversight, improper training, and corruption amongst officials. Enforcing the international ban on torture, like all rights movements, will require a far-reaching and thorough global initiative that addresses both the immediate causes of torture and the underlying risk factors.