WORLD: The Best Way to Prevent Torture: Academics vs. Human Rights Defenders

A group of researchers associated with the Sydney University in Australia claim that they have found a more effective way than what has been tried so far, to prevent torture. The more effective way, as claimed, is to engage with the torturers themselves; which means to engage with officers of the security establishments. Quite an expensive project has been undertaken and one of the last acts of that project was the hosting of a conference in Bangkok. This gave rise to a controversy due to Sri Lankan authorities threatening to withdraw from the Conference if two well-known human rights organizations in Sri Lanka – who were also invited – would attend this conference. The international research team obediently complied with the Sri Lankan Government’s request and withdrew invitations to the two human rights organisations from Sri Lanka.

In response, several human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and the Asian Human Rights Commission, protested against this move by the international research team and withdrew from this conference. There had been several media reports on this issue and on the 16th September 2014, Danielle Celermajer tried to explain the position of the organisers in an article published in The Guardian titled “Ending torture means engaging with traditional foes”. The subtitle to the article reads as follows: “naming and shaming actors responsible for torture often isn’t the best way to put a stop to the practice – which is why we are engaging with organisations guilty of that crime”

I have already replied to this article by way of a comment published today.

This comment is reproduced below:

“The basis of this article is the same as the basic premise of the Enhancing Human Rights Project: namely, that engaging with those who do the actual torture is the strategy for eliminating torture.

That basic premise is where the fallacy lies. Torturers, whether they are police or military, do not torture people for reasons of their choice. They do so, on policies which are determined by their political masters. It is these political masters who decide whether they will rely on creating and maintaining a well-functioning public justice system as the way to control crime, or whether they will rely on torture and repression as their way of dealing with the problem.

I have earlier expressed my view on this project, available here, to the author of this article.

Holding discussions with some police officers or military officers is quite a useful thing to do and no one will object to that. However when holding such discussions is presented as, ‘the strategy to eliminate torture and ill-treatment’ that betrays a lack of a proper assessment of actual reasons for the widespread use of torture within a particular country.

When a police or military officer who has engaged in torture is asked why he does so, if he feels free enough to speak frankly, he is very likely to say that he is doing so in order to keep his job. When the State fails to create a well-functioning public justice system, it must allow other tools to be used in dealing with “criminals”. What is more, within such a repressive system, the word “criminal” includes political opponents of the government in power. If officers refuse to use such “tools”, which include torture and ill-treatment, he will be replaced by others who are willing to do so.

There is quite an extensive treatment of this theme in a book published this year entitled The Locust Effect by Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros. Gary Haugen shows that a dysfunctional public justice system is the greatest evil that citizens, particularly the poor, can be confronted with. What follows is that any genuine attempt to eliminate repression, of which torture and ill-treatment is an integral part, necessitates finding ways to convince governments of the need to ensure that the citizens are provided protection through well-functioning institutions, such as the police and other sectors of the security services, as well as the prosecutors and judiciary.

When the participants from the security sector objected to the participation of two human rights activists, threatening the security force personnel’s withdrawal from the Conference, they did so on the wishes of the government. The question to be asked is why the government would want to do such a thing. The security officers cannot answer this on behalf of the political leaders of the government.

If a rat decides to engage with cats in order to ensure their better behavior, the cats may engage in that game with quite a cynical perspective. That is also what happens when attempts are made to engage with those who commit torture and ill-treatment with the view to motivating them to behave better. Such engagements will go only on the terms laid down by those who allow the torture to take place. That is what this particular Conference proved.

Undoubtedly, the Enhancing Human Rights Project has been designed with a sincere purpose. However, sincerity by itself is not enough when dealing with such a highly politically-loaded problem as the failure of the state to create and maintain a well-functioning public justice system that does not require the use of torture and ill-treatment.

A few more comments are in order.

Human Rights Defenders vs. International Researchers

The claim by the international team of researchers and their projects is that human rights defenders have failed to contribute to the prevention of torture and therefore the researchers are looking for a new method of talking to the guilty ones.

First of all, is there anything new in such talk? Anyone who knows anything about human rights organizations, and also of many other establishments working on elimination of torture, is that for decades much talking has been done between them and the security establishments in different countries to convince and assist them not to engage in torture. In fact, some governments have spent large sums of money to provide experts to work on this strategy and have sometimes provided money for projects that have lasted for several years. Some human rights organizations have also involved security officers in various kinds of talk shops, over a long period of time. The unanimous conclusion with regard to all such projects is that all these efforts have contributed nothing to change the behavior of the security forces regarding the use of torture.

Those who engage in such efforts have also learned another lesson: that the behavior of these security officers is determined not by their own volition and choices but by others who pay their salaries. One of the public services in which slave-like obedience prevails is the security service. It is obedience that makes them do anything, including the torturing of persons. Such obedience does not mean that every act of torture is done on the basis of a direct order.  Instead, such obedience is achieved through policies and methods of the monitoring of performance. Promotion and dismissal of these officers always depends on the way such obedience is demonstrated.

In fact, in most of the developing countries, it is not only the police and military officers that blindly obey orders. Others, like the judges and the prosecutors, also act in the same manner. In such countries, the independence of judges and prosecutors is not respected. What is there to be surprised, then, about the expected behavior displayed by the police and the military officers?

Human rights defenders, over long years of engagement for hardly any remuneration, have learned these realities. The international researchers who roam around, now and then, in these harsh environments may like to engage in “quixotic adventures”, as long as their projects last.

For example, the two human rights defenders, who were dis-invited from attending the Bangkok conference in question, have worked long years. They know their terrain and know it well.  So do other human rights defenders that choose to engage with as difficult and critical an issue as prevention of torture and ill-treatment.

Some Ethical Issues

It was the international researchers who invited the two human rights defenders from Sri Lanka. When the Sri Lankan authorities demanded that these rights defenders be dis-invited, did the conference organizers ask the Sri Lankan authorities the reasons for their objection? The most elementary of ethical duties of a host that is confronted with an objection to any of their invitees, is to ask for justification for such an objection. If no justifiable reason is given, then basic etiquette demand that the host will reject such objections.

No such ethical considerations were given any importance in obediently accepting the objections of the Sri Lankan authorities. In the article published in The Guardian, this obedience is justified by stating that ‘for the sake of the greater good of prevention of torture the two persons were sacrificed’. Such a statement, purely on moral grounds, is repugnant. To put it bluntly, the human rights defenders were “treated like dirt.”

The arrogant tone referring to “failed human rights defenders” reflects a state of mind that would have no difficulty in treating a human rights defender as one belonging to a lower status to that of a police or a military officer. It is this contempt with which the entire article treats the human rights project as a whole, and these two defenders in particular, that is difficult to stomach.

The article further says that their new approach is being seen as complicity. That is altogether wrong. What it is seen as is stupidity and ignorance. The fundamental flaw of this entire project is that it could hardly be called an academic project.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-170-2014
Countries : World,
Issues : Human rights defenders, Right to life, Rule of law, Torture,