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Torture In 2014: 30 Years of Broken Promises


Electric shocks. Beatings. Rape. Humiliation. Mock executions. Burning. Sleep deprivation. Water torture. Long hours in contorted positions. Use of pincers, drugs, and dogs.

The very words sound like the stuff of nightmares. But every day and across every region of the world, these unimaginable horrors are the reality for countless men, women and children.

Salil Shetty, Secretary General, Amnesty International


Introduction By Salil Shetty

Torture is abhorrent. It is barbaric and inhumane. It can never be justified. It is wrong, self-defeating and poisons the rule of law, replacing it with terror. No one is safe when governments allow its use.

The world's governments recognized these fundamental truths when, in the aftermath of the atrocities of the Second World War, they adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This enshrined the basic right of all of us, everywhere, to live free from torture, free from cruelty.

This right – at the heart of our shared humanity – was later enshrined in a legally binding international agreement through an explicit and absolute prohibition against torture and other ill-treatment, in the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

30 years ago this year, this progress was further built upon by the UN Convention Against Torture. The Convention was groundbreaking: it offered a set of concrete steps to make the global ban on torture a reality, by establishing a set of measures, enshrined in law and specifically designed to prevent torture, punish perpetrators and ensure justice and redress to victims. These measures intend not only to end torture and other ill-treatment nationally, but also to ensure that no-one is deported across borders to be tortured, and that there is no safe haven for perpetrators.

Torturers are now international outlaws. A robust international legal framework has been built up and 155 countries are state parties to the UN Convention. This is real and meaningful progress. But many governments are betraying their responsibility. Three decades on from the Convention – and more than 65 years after the Universal Declaration – torture is not just alive and well. It is flourishing.

The outrageous extent of torture today exposes the gulf between what promises governments made 30 years ago and what governments do today.

Over the past five years, Amnesty International has reported on torture and other ill-treatment in 141 countries and from every world region. While in some of these countries Amnesty International has only documented isolated and exceptional cases, in others torture is systemic. But even one case of torture or other ill-treatment is unacceptable.

This figure gives a sense of the scale of the problem but we can only report on those cases known to us. By no means do they reflect the full extent of torture in the world. Nor do they begin to describe the despicable reality of torture, or the true cost of lost and ruined lives.

Torture is a favoured tool of the forces of repression, but its use is not restricted to tyrants and dictators, even if it is prevalent under such regimes. Nor is it the preserve of the secret police. While many states have taken the universal prohibition seriously and made significant strides in combating torture, governments across the political spectrum and from every continent still collude in this ultimate corruption of humanity: using torture to extract information, force confessions, silence dissent or simply as a cruel punishment.

Alarmingly, a new global poll commissioned by Amnesty International reveals that – 30 years after the UN Convention – almost half of the world's population still do not feel safe from this horrific abuse.

A Global Crisis of Barbarism, Failure And Fear
Although governments have prohibited this dehumanizing practice in law and have recognized global disgust at its existence, many of them are carrying out torture or facilitating it in practice. The political failure by governments is compounded and fuelled by a corrosive state of denial. Those who order or commit torture usually escape justice. Torture is mostly carried out with impunity, with no investigation and no one prosecuted.

Rather than respecting the rule of law through zero-tolerance of torture, governments persistently and routinely lie about it to their own people and to the world. Rather than ensuring effective safeguards to protect their citizens from the torturer; instead they allow torture to thrive.

The pervasive and pernicious nature of this abuse demonstrates that a global ban is not enough.

Our worldwide poll also shows that the overwhelming majority of people want clear rules against torture. Such rules and other safeguards could prevent and ultimately bring an end to torture. Double standards on torture must be tackled head on. Impunity must end.

For more than 50 years, Amnesty International has been fighting to stamp out one of the most insidious acts one human being can perpetrate against another. 30 years ago, our movement led the campaign to secure the UN Convention Against Torture. Now we are launching a worldwide "Stop Torture" campaign to get that promise fulfilled.

This latest campaign is a rallying call to stop torture. And we can: if all of us – from those on the street to heads of state – stand between the tortured and the torturer.

Amnesty International is mobilizing across the world to end torture. We will target governments, demonstrate, and expose the brutality of this noxious abuse. We will stand alongside those who bravely defend others against torture. Together we will intervene whenever people are tortured. We will hold torturers to account. Torture survivors will know they are not forgotten and not alone.

Combating torture is part of our history, it is our legacy and – until the final torture chamber closes for business – it is our future.


Torture – A Human Rights Violation And A Crime


This bald summary of the legal definition of torture in the UN Convention against Torture intends to reflect the necessity of the total rejection of an act where one human being targets the body and/or mind of another, and deliberately causes him or her great pain, creating the pain as a means to an end, and turning his or her victim into a mere tool.

It is no wonder that the right to freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is probably the human right most robustly protected under international law.

States' obligations under international law leave them with absolutely no wriggle room. Torture and other ill-treatment are prohibited always, everywhere and against anyone. This prohibition extends to the worst emergencies including war, internal disturbances and natural or man-made catastrophes. It protects the most feared individuals such as enemy soldiers and spies, serious criminals and terrorists.

In legal terms, the absolute prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment is "non-derogable", that is, it cannot be relaxed even in times of emergency. The prohibition has achieved such a strong international consensus that it has become a rule of customary international law, which is binding even on states which have not joined the relevant human rights treaties. Acts of torture and certain types of other ill-treatment are also crimes under international law. They are war crimes under all four Geneva Conventions (ratified by every single state in the world). In addition, under certain circumstances, these acts could amount to crimes against humanity or to acts of genocide for instance under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

But even a single act of torture is a crime under international law. This means – at least for the 155 states which have ratified the Convention against Torture – governments must criminalize torture, investigate thoroughly and impartially any complaints, and prosecute perpetrators whenever there is sufficient evidence.

When a suspected torturer is present in a state that is party to the Convention against Torture, then – even if the act of torture has taken place in another country and none of its citizens are involved – the state must exercise "universal jurisdiction" over the crime, by examining the case, apprehending the suspect if necessary, then either extraditing him or her to another country or court for prosecution, or else prosecuting the suspect itself.