ASIA: Welcoming speech by Jan Ole Haagensen, Director RCT at the AAATI Meeting of Asian Parliamentarians
Speech by Jan Ole Haagensen, Director of International Department of Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims, Denmark. The speech was delivered at the Meeting of Asian Parliamentarians in Hong Kong on the 21 July 2012 as part of the Asian Alliance Against Torture and Ill-treatment.
Regional Meeting of Asian Parliamentarians against Torture and Ill-Treatment
Hong Kong, July 21-24, 2012
Honourable parliamentarians, government officials, researchers, members of the judiciary, colleagues in the Asian Human Rights Commission and colleagues from other human rights organisations.
First, I would like to greet all participants warmly. A special welcome goes to the parliamentarians and for my colleagues among the human rights organizations. It is a great pleasure for me to see you all here and for me to be together with you in the coming days’ elaborations. You cannot imagine how much I have looked forward to this event where two entities - crucial for having a vibrant and living democracy - are present; parliamentarians and civil society organizations. We are here together to explore how we can best eradicate the gruesome and anachronistic practice of torture.
Torture is not only a tragedy for the victims; it is also degrading for those who perpetrate it and to societies which tolerate such outrage. Today, we have international instruments in place, primarily the UN Convention against Torture and its Optional Protocol. Freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is an inalienable human right. The prohibition of torture is a fundamental principle of international human rights law. This prohibition is absolute and allows no exceptions. Yet today torture constitutes a huge problem in the world with torture taking place in more than half of all the countries in the world, among these many are Asian countries.
Torture an indicator of fundamental system failure
The last 12 years, I have been working at the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims in Copenhagen, Denmark. At present, we support activities against torture in more than 20 different countries so I have had the opportunity to travel quite a lot and meet interesting people, politicians, government officials and human rights defenders who work relentlessly on stopping torture and for the alleviation of the sufferings of torture victims. I have participated in productive meetings, but also numerous meetings with many good words and intentions, but these have not always turned into the expected actions. Often the work to stop torture is rather risky and dangerous. Despite hard work, the great efforts seem never to be sufficient. Over the years, we have met competent and committed government officials who eagerly want to work towards the rule of law society, but they are often entangled in institutions and systems that are seriously flawed and malfunctioning. The malpractice of torture is commonly found thriving together with another practice that is hindering development – corruption.
Torture is preventable - changing practices and attitudes
Over the years - many trainings on human rights law and standards for police officers, prison staff and the judiciary have taken place - and I regret to say that the impact of these trainings are much too often quite meagre. People are trained but when the police officer, prison officer or the like returns to his or her job after the training - they seem to return to their old practices as well. The institutional practices seem so deep-rooted and institutionalised. The value of not torturing people who are in custody seems not to have been internalised despite the trainings. When the system and the society tolerate torture - something more is needed for ending the practice of torture – it is about changing practises and attitudes.
Human history has shown that it is possible to eradicate torture, for instance, in Denmark and Scandinavia where I come from, but also in Asia. Among the areas is Hong Kong where we are gathered today. I look forward to hearing more about this particularly experience and to see whether there are some insights which can be used elsewhere. Thus torture is preventable in Europe as well as in Asia. What seems to be missing in the equation on ending torture is the political will! Which is why I am so happy to see the parliamentarians here today and hear from them how they see ways of eliminating the practice.
The group of parliamentarians is the most central group of all groups involved in this work. If parliamentarians are not solidly behind the absolute prohibition of torture, we will never succeed in preventing torture effectively.They are legislating, but they are also representatives of people and at the same time they are role models and as such they have an obligation of influencing the public opinion.
Example from Denmark
Here I feel obliged to return to the experience of my own country related to my own organisation, the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT).
RCT was founded 30 years ago to undertake rehabilitation of torture survivors who had fled their own countries and who were in need of specialized treatment due to torture. From the beginning, RCT also took upon itself the task of preventing torture using the knowledge gained from the treatment and thorough medical documentation of the consequences of torture on the individual, the family and the community. So we know quite a lot about the evil practices that human beings can do against other human beings.
RCT was born out of the general value of condemning torture deeply entrenched in the Danish society. This resistance to torture was amplified during the second world War was when Denmark was occupied by the Nazis who used torture when dealing with potential Danish resistance fighters. I will give you an example of when this attitude against torture materialised.
In the late 1960s Danish parliamentarians took strong initiatives to support Greek politicians severely tortured by the Greek Military regime – (1967-74). Professor in international law Dr. Ole Espersen, who is presently a legal consultant of RCT, was one of these Danish Politicians.1 Later he became the chairmen of RCT in the 1990s. Although Ole Espersen was a Social Democrat, the Danish right wing government supported the public pressure on the Greek regime. Due to pressure from Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries the Greek regime had to leave the Council of Europe because of the harsh critique and became increasingly diplomatically isolated. Eventually, the military dictatorship collapsed.
Afterwards, the Danish Government has been very supportive of attempts to heal torture survivors and to prevent torture globally – expressed for instance by its many years of support to the work of our organization, internationally and nationally where the rehabilitation of torture survivors (people who live exile in Denmark) is part of the Danish public health system. Today the parliament’s support to the work against torture cuts across party lines.
The Danish Police also distance themselves from the idea of using torture. For good reasons the police finds that the gains from undertaking torture is highly questionable and they know that they as police would have to pay directly for the consequences. Today, we have so much literature on the negative effects of undertaking torture. Few remain unaffected by this. Although the human value of not accepting torture is so entrenched, still, even in Denmark we have to harness it – otherwise people forget. It seems that younger generations are less aware of torture and the impacts of torture – so human rights organisations like ours still have an educational role in our respective societies.
Not only ‘bad’ people torture – it is SOP
Torture is a barbaric practice which is much too common despite the international conventions prohibiting it. Regrettably, this is also the case in Asia where torture in some countries is so common that it can be seen as SOP (standard operating procedures). There is so much ignorance in relation to torture and the tremendous consequences of torture on the individual, the family, the local community and the society at large. Basically, torture is often just a way of covering up bad institutional performance – and a gross indicator of severe system failure in respect of the state and its living up to the attainment of human rights. We are not talking about a few bad apples, but about system failure. Central research has given evidence to the fact that under the wrong conditions almost all of us can become torturers.2 Man or woman is not born evil and are not born to be torturers. It is systems that create torturers. Torture is a tragedy for the person who is tortured, a tragedy for the perpetrator, because hardly anybody is unaffected undertaking torture, and a tragedy for society, because gross human rights violations have severe negative consequences for the society. If you then add the fact that there is a clear overrepresentation of poor and otherwise marginalised people among those who are tortured – also here the poor pay the brunt of the burden.
What is the role of parliamentarians?
First, it is necessary to accept that the problem is huge and to accept that solving this immense problem is not done over a few days or by ratifying a few conventions. We have lots of documentation. You just have to look into the website of Asian Human Rights Commission and its many publications documenting numerous cases of people who have been tortured. It demands thorough analyses of the problem and then the preparation of well-developed strategies to eliminate torture. It requires a lot of political courage from first and foremost the parliamentarians who should ensure an enabling political environment where we without risks can work against torture. Lack of political will, lack of transparency and accountability due to lack of respect for the rule of law and high levels of corruption all increase the risk of torture. Related to this, parliamentarians are obliged to secure
a) that the necessary legislation is in place. Here many stops – if all the countries who had ratified the conventions had also eradicated torture – then the world would have looked much different and we could have concentrated our work on the countries who have not ratified the relevant conventions and passed the accompanying legislation – but this regrettably far from the case.
b) that sufficient funds are available and not less important - a common practice is to fail to ensure the relevant institutions have the funds necessary to undertake the tasks.
c) to oversee that the implementation is going as intended. Here cooperation with human rights defender and the press is central.
Often it is not more funds which are needed, but change of attitudes and practices – - practices which are institutionalized – and hard to eliminate. It will require political courage as there is substantial resistance to change in the various institutions, but also in the society at large where a politician can come under pressure for being soft on criminals and in some countries during people’s call for expectance of instant justice (one of democracies weaknesses is that it can fall prey to populism). Almost no one is publicly accepting torture (some may try to redefine the concept of torture – like US under Bush), but quite many in high places on this continent seems to put a blind eye to the practice of torture taking place in their countries. It is convenient, because it is such a controversial and sensitive issue. So, therefore political courage is required from the parliamentarians working for the prevention of torture. In the short run – few medals may be won on championing this issue, but it is necessary – not only to avoid critique from the respective UN treaty bodies - but because of the simple fact that a country with torture and impunity is a country of fear and a lack of trust in public institutions. Torture is very costly which I will discuss more in-depth tomorrow and the results are poor. Finally, there is the ethical argument – torture is a non-human practice – it is for that reason that, an absolute prohibition of torture has been put into international law. It is a fundamental human right.
In some countries – to be a politician is to belong to the risk group of people who can be tortured (if you belong to the opposition then you in special risk – this is also in these countries that it is particularly difficult to prevent torture because torture is sometimes used as a mean in the political struggle). Therefore, co-operation between politicians from different countries can be a very valuable activity as in the case where Danish politicians supported Greek colleagues who had been tortured or risked being tortured. See this is the personal interest, but we shall not forget that for every special or celebrity case, there are 1000 of cases of poor ordinary people who are tortured. The overwhelming majority of people tortured are poor marginalised people as mentioned earlier.
The role of AHRC
This meeting is the first of its kind in Asia and we from the RCT feel privileged to be invited into this by the AHRC who relentlessly, diligently and with great competencies have been working for the prevention of torture for many years now. On the flight we read the last issue of International Herald Tribune where there once more was a reference to the work of AHRC. I would like to greet the Asian Human Right Commission with this pertinent initiative.
Once more I am happy to be herewith youall and we are grateful that you could find time for taking part in this meeting. I hope that exchange views and discuss what is realistic, pragmatic and ambitious for the elimination of torture.We are not expecting miracles but we are only working for them to them to happen. Hopefully, we can at the end of this regional meeting come up with some ideas which can make Asia a continent much less prone to torture. Because Torture is preventable.
I have discussed the content of this regional meeting with some reputable Danish politicians who would be feel honoured to be part of an exchange of experiences and ideas across continents and cultures.
Jan Ole Haagensen
21 July 2012
Director of International Department of Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims, Denmark
1. Ole Espersen can for personal reasons not be with us during this meeting
2. Zimbardo and the Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram Experiment at Yale University.