— Basil Fernando, AHRC

Note: The following letter, dated 14 January 2003, was written to the Economist magazine in reply to its January 11 cover story, “Is torture ever justified?” The opinion column from that edition is currently available online at


Dear Sir/Madam

In response to your January 11 cover story, “Is torture ever justified?”, we need only look to the situation in numerous modern states for the answer. As director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, I can say unequivocally that the argument favouring limited use of torture is contradicted by all of our experience.

For people of most countries in Asia, the prospective use of torture by state agents long ceased to be a matter for conjecture. It is no theoretical idea at all, but a widely practiced one. There is no Asian country known to us where its use, once admitted, has been limited. In fact, the very concept of limited torture is dangerously naive.

When torture is no longer absolutely prohibited, law enforcement attitudes change. Over time, the mentality that torture is acceptable comes to infect the entire system, and even persons accused of normal crimes get the same treatment as suspected terrorists. Years of great effort spent in training effective law enforcement officers are undermined. Habits of transparency diminish; falsification increases. Terrorists do not suffer in such an environment: rather, they thrive in it. As the system of law enforcement collapses, they obtain many practical advantages, and are also prepared for any consequences.

Some twenty years ago in my country, Sri Lanka, the use of torture by law enforcement agencies became accepted. Terrorists expected to be tortured if captured, and each carried a cyanide capsule to take as a last resort. The real targets of the practice evaded it, but meantime it has so permeated and decayed the law enforcement system that today children have been tortured by police officers on suspicion of theft from a school canteen. While easy to begin, the routine practice of torture has not been easy to stop. Those who advocate ‘limited’ torture would do well to study the consequences in countries such as my own, that advocated this view earlier.

The absolute prohibition of torture is the very core of all rational forms of criminal investigation. Today, many countries are trying hard to improve their law enforcement systems accordingly. If the West waivers on this principle the message will be devastating, not only for itself but also for the entire world. When the progress of the rule of law is set back, the result is not further security, but rather new breeding grounds for terrorism. The use of torture by state agencies reduces criminal investigation to mere farce, and society to sheer barbarism. From the standpoint of one who knows from personal experience, I urge the West to utterly reject the proposition that limited torture is ever possible: its consequences are vast and uncontrollable.

Yours sincerely,


Basil Fernando
Executive Director
Asian Human Rights Commission

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-01-2003
Countries : Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand,
Issues : Torture,