WORLD: A unique regional initiative: The Asian Alliance against Torture and Ill-Treatment
Erik Wendt & Therese Rytter, Rehabilitation & Research Centre for Torture Victims, Denmark
It is well documented that torture, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial executions are carried out throughout Asia by agents of the state, notably police, military, and special investigation units, who expose ordinary citizens to such heinous crimes in complete disregard of national legislation.
Torture is rampant, but even today it remains a taboo in many countries — and for good reasons. Human rights defenders and civil society organizations strive to break this taboo. They meticulously document torture and other human rights violations and disseminate information about these abusive practices to the governments and the general public in their countries. A human rights movement is growing, demanding an immediate stop to the use of torture. But more needs to be done to bring more people into this movement, notably parliamentarians, medical professionals, media people, and other progressive forces.
This is the motivation behind a unique regional initiative, the Asian Alliance Against Torture and Ill-treatment (AAATI). The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT), Denmark, took the lead to organize the foundational meeting of the AAATI, the first of its kind in Asia. The meeting was held from 15 to 19 August 2011 at the AHRC’s office in Hong Kong.
Participants from Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Burma, Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong and Denmark were represented in the meeting. They shared extensive knowledge and experience of how state-perpetrated torture persists in their countries, often on a systematic scale, and of its underlying causes. These presentations depicted the worst forms of deprivation of individual liberties.
It was heartbreaking to listen to personal testimonials from participants about abductions and torture committed by secret agencies with no regard to the law and beyond normal human behaviour. Gruesome and inhumane scenes of torture are available on social media such as YouTube — it generates despair and anger to see such crimes of torture. More importantly it creates a strong hope for change, as torture is completely unacceptable and without any excuse whatsoever.
Torture has permeated into everyday life and affects any attempt to boost genuine human development in South and Southeast Asian countries. The negative consequences can genuine human can hardly be underestimated and hamper broader development goals. While torture is hitting hard on poor men and women, and excluded and voiceless populations, it is also an instrument of terror and a fear factor for progressive forces in society.
Take for example cases from Pakistan and Bangladesh, where physical and mental torture are used without any reservation in public space and even against high ranking officers in the judiciary, against legitimate parliamentarians from opposition parties, and to deter courageous lawyers and media. Under such conditions, no one is guaranteed freedom from torture.
The participants asserted that there is an urgent requirement for a reorientation within the global human rights movement, from norms education to the understanding of the functioning of domestic legal frameworks, and with that knowledge, to engage with the domestic mechanisms to improve their functioning, or in some jurisdictions where justice institutions are completely dysfunctional, to encourage a comprehensive reform process. The participants expect that international bodies, like the United Nations and regional groupings like the European Union, will reorient their priorities towards this approach in their engagement with Asian states.
The participants emphasized the demand for justice reforms. The basic perception of justice is in most Asian states negated by the impossibility of making complaints; lack of witness protection; absence of training and equipment for scientific investigation of cases; inefficient prosecutions; insensitive and sometimes corrupt judges subdued by the executive, and extensive delays in adjudication that in some jurisdictions can last for decades. Also highlighted in the meeting was the relative difficulty in dealing with detention centres and prisons, and the inhuman practices perpetrated against detainees and convicts. The resultant environment clearly lacks the prerequisites for protecting, promoting and achieving the rule of law, which facilitates the endemic use of torture in Asia.
The participants who laid the foundation of the AAATI believe that it is possible to identify innovative ways of promoting the fight against torture. They observed that today modern facilities, like communication technology, must be used to document and disseminate information and to lobby for change. They also called for the global human rights movement to make fighting torture one of its priority issues. They agreed that justice reforms are crucial, and that fighting impunity without such reforms will remain an illusion.
The causes and contributing factors to the prevalence of torture as well as the concrete measures to eradicate it are context specific, but it is possible to extract common features. The AAATI will fill the gap to ensure that a consolidated generic analysis drawing on experience and research is constructed. A debate with scholars and practitioners should be initiated on the basis of a conceptual framework for ending torture. Core approaches for eradication within different political, legislative, socio-economic, and cultural settings should be established and the effect should be assessed.
The challenge is to foster political willingness for reforms and to capacitate the progressive agents of the state and in the civil society to support a change agenda. There are human rights champions inside each country and they could be part of a wider alliance. Lessons learned from other regions and research will be essential. What sparked the historical abolition of slavery and torture in the western world was the moral outrage and public cry for change. Once Enlightenment writers and legal reformers— such as Rousseau, Beccaria and Voltaire—began to question the use of torture, an almost complete turnabout in attitudes took place over a couple of decades. The barbarism of judicial torture and cruel punishment became a reform mantra in the l770s and 80s, which generated the first waves of torture abolition in Europe.
In essence, the end to torture in Western Europe can be attributed to two main factors. First, the traditional framework of pain and personhood fell apart, and was replaced, bit by bit, by a new framework, in which individuals owned their own bodies, had rights to their separateness and to bodily inviolability, and recognized in other people the same sentiments and sympathies as in themselves. Second, there was a change of the system of penal procedure, whereby witness statements and circumstantial evidence became decisive, and the confession was given less weight. What eventually led to the abolition of slavery was a meticulous effort to document and explain to the English exactly what conditions were like on slave ships and plantations, because slavery was out of sight for the average English family. This evidence of barbarity was used to put relentless political pressure on the politicians who finally decided to abolish slavery.
What can spark outrage and motivate Asia is a continued flow of documentation on torture. The elimination of torture depends upon the continued documentation of torture. It is important to expose what is happening and effectively communicate about torture to the broader population, and especially to wake up the ‘sleeping middle class’.
Increasingly local grassroots and civil society organizations have come under pressure in many Asian countries. In fact, this trend is worldwide. But human rights organizations working on issues dealing with torture and other grave state violations of rights in particular have experienced harassment, threats and even direct persecution by state agents. It is important to counteract the shrinking space for civil influence towards common goals. The AAATI alliance is therefore an effort to intensify the debate on the core problems related to the rule of law and criminal justice systems, and to identify where and how it is possible to act on the national stage or on the international arena.
The RCT is a Danish civil society organization working against necessity to create torture in many countries around the world in close partnership and expand alliances with local human rights organizations. We work prevention and rehabilitation of victims of torture. In stark contrast to the reality in many Asian countries, Denmark is a country governed by law, with almost no cases of torture. In fact, our work is strongly supported by the Danish government. The non-tolerance of torture is a core pillar in the Danish society progressive forces and the anti-torture cause is supported by the vast majority of the population, the government, politicians across parliament, and opinion-makers. However, it was not always so. The history in Denmark is filled with cruel examples of state endorsement and use of torture for confession and for punishment. It was only in the year 1837 that the Danish King abolished torture. And it took a long political and intellectual debate and struggle to come to the conclusion that torture is under no circumstances acceptable in our country.
The AAATI is born from a similar vision as the RCT: to secure a world free from torture. We share a commitment to the long historical struggle against torture. The vision of a torture-free world comes from the necessity to create and expand alliances across national boundaries and between change agents and progressive forces. We are confident that the foundation of the AAATI will create a broader movement that will bring about a stronger engagement of progressive forces working for better results through innovative actions against torture.