ASIA: Basic argument for the elimination of police torture
The following is a speech by Basil Fernando, Director for Policy and Programme Development at the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong. The speech was delivered at the Meeting of Asian Parliamentarians in Hong Kong on the 22 July 2012, as part of the Asian Alliance against Torture and Ill-treatment.
Basic Argument for the Elimination of Police Torture
What does police torture mean?
If we were to ask this question, and then proceed to answer it, someone may ask in turn, “Wait, how do you know?” It would take us into realms of epistemology: “how do we know anything?”
Such a question been asked through the ages. And, one answer that has emerged in the last few centuries is that one knows by the collection and observation of data. Our age is symbolized by the images of the telescope and the microscope. And today, we answer questions about what something means through observation and analysis of data.
What about the data on torture?
This data is present in the actual stories of victims of torture. The approach of studying torture through the stories of victims differs from the study of mere statistics. Through stories accurately recorded, we can know what torture is, why it happens, and answer all other associated questions.
What does the known data on torture tell us? What it tells us is of the contradictions in our institutions. Observation and analysis of this data reveals to us the malfunctioning of institutions, which defeat the possibility of achieving rule of law. The study of torture thereby becomes a study of the basic structure of key institutions in our societies, and their peculiar defects.
The data garnered from the stories of victims reveals to us the utter stupidity of the way our major institutions function. It follows that torture is not simply a study of cruelty. Rather, it is more a study about the stupidity that has become a part of the way our institutions function.
Thus, asking a question like “what is the meaning of torture?” is like asking the meaning of pneumonia, malaria, or any other disease. Today, the methods of studying such diseases have been well-established. The same principles can be used to study the diseases that afflict our basic institutions.
Democracy, without functioning institutions, is a meaningless expression, an empty balloon floating through space. Democracy, if it is to be meaningful, is about functioning public institutions. The measure of well-functioning institutions is the way such institutions are capable of functioning under the rule of law. When a public institution is dysfunctional, from the point of view of rule of law, it means that such an institution has ceased to be an institution of democracy, and has transformed into something else.
In our societies, where police torture is widespread, what we are experiencing are public institutions which have become "something else." This "something else" may have gone as far as totalitarianism, or it may be along the path to such an "ism", but what we can be sure of is that such institutions have not only become non-democratic, they have become an obstacle to democracy.
In countries where there is widespread use of torture, there is also a belief, particularly among the leaders and operators of public institutions, that policing without torture is impossible. However, the opposite is a more direct reflection of reality. When torture is a widespread practice, policing, in its democratic sense, becomes impossible.
The above reflections are on the very basics of the discussions we have had yesterday.
As for AHRC, such discussions started almost fifteen years back. We have answered questions by stubbornly continuing with the methodology of studying torture via accurately recording stories of victims, day in and day out. Our documentation is testimony to the pursuit of finding-out the meaning of torture through such study of stories. Our maxim in our early days was "go from micro to macro”, which meant “to know through individual stories of torture the problems of the basic structure of society."
When we know about these stories, the knowledge we have about the basic structure of our societies is explained in a very different way to what it is normally believed or declared to be.
This is why the study of the widespread practice of torture and the exposure of it is a vital part of undoing what is wrong with the basic structure of our societies. It is from this point of view that dealing with the issue of police torture becomes an unavoidable task for anyone who is committed to the pursuit of democracy in our societies.
Elimination of police torture is one of the most essential tasks in working towards democratization of our societies. It is a practical way of getting about undoing the institutional obstacles to democracy.
It is this approach that the Asian Human Rights Commission is presenting to the participants in this meeting. And, in particular, AHRC is asking the legislators to take this approach seriously in the strategies that they develop to fight for the establishment of democracy.
The elimination of torture and the enabling of the freedom of speech are inseparably linked. When the possibility of the practice of torture is reduced, if not fully eliminated, the psychological conditions for the freedom of speech are thereby created. And the core element of democracy is the freedom of speech. It is through the freedom of speech that we are able to get the views of many, if not all, and thereby develop a collective consciousness with the participation of all. Thus, in the development of civic sense and in the development of people’s participation, the elimination of torture is an essential component.