Thirty Years of Broken Promises

By Salil Shetty, Secretary General at Amnesty International.

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty at the launch of the Stop Torture Campaign Launch.
Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty at the launch of the Stop Torture Campaign Launch.

I was 23 when the United Nations adopted the Convention Against Torture in December 1984, and the event seemed a world away from my home in Bangalore. India was in deep turmoil. That summer, Sikh militants had occupied the Golden Temple, and the Indian army had been dispatched to clear them out. Hundreds, mostly Sikhs, were killed in the fierce gun battle that ensued.

Months later Indira Gandhi was assassinated in an apparent revenge attack. My father, a journalist for one of India’s leading newspapers, wrote a piece on the Sikh struggle for self-determination. Some time later, the police turned up at our door. It would be weeks before we saw him again.

Back in 1984, a spell in an Indian police station meant a beating — or worse. Police would knock you about and ask questions later. A few years before my father’s arrest, officers had picked up a classmate of mine. When his parents found out, they rushed to the police station – just in time to hear his anguished screams through the precinct walls. Officers had tied him to the ceiling and flipped him so the weight of his body forced his joints apart.When torture comes to your home, it brings with it fear and helplessness. For too many people in the world today, that fear is still a painful fact of everyday life.

Thirty years on from the Convention, 155 states have put pen to paper committing themselves to wiping out torture and other ill-treatment. Yet in 2014, more than half those states continue the practice. Beating, electric shocks, rape, whipping, burning, using drugs and dogs – the range of techniques humans employ to inflict pain on one another is astounding and appalling. In the course of Amnesty International’s work this year, we recorded at least 27 different torture methods still being used today.

This doesn’t mean the Convention hasn’t worked. For those countries taking their responsibilities seriously, it provides an instruction manual on how to combat torture. It has given the world a benchmark to strive towards and to be measured against. Torturers are now international outlaws.

But it does mean there is still much more work to do. Amnesty International fought for the Convention Against Torture; now it fights for those promises made three decades ago to be fulfilled. On Tuesday we launch a worldwide campaign, Stop Torture, to do just that.It is time to put an end to prisoners being locked out of sight, left bruised and battered in dark and lonely cells. Prompt access to lawyers, courts and relatives must be guaranteed, and conditions of detention must be humane. Recorded interrogations and spot checks on detention centers will ensure torturers have nowhere left to hide. Independent medical examinations will expose the marks they leave.

We want an end to awkward, shuffling methods of dealing with complaints, rerouting them to the very people who initiated the abuse with catastrophic consequences. Each complaint of torture or other ill-treatment must be investigated effectively, independently and impartially.And we demand that torturers — whoever they are, wherever they are and whatever their reasons for torturing — are brought to justice. Not just the baton-wielding prison guard, but the commanding officers, too. The responsibility that comes with great power cannot be diminished by thin excuses about the ‘greater good.’

Our campaign is a call for global action — targeting five countries where we feel we can achieve greater impact and contribute to long-lasting change through concerted advocacy, activism and media pressure. Pressure to implement reforms in law and practice that have proved effective in countries all over the world.

In Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, the Philippines and Uzbekistan we are taking on abusive law enforcement agencies in an effort to force through this change. Amnesty International will focus an international spotlight on one after another.

We will denounce how, in spite of Mexico’s relatively strong legislation to prevent and punish torture, the practice continues tolerated and unabated across the country. According to a global survey we commissioned for the campaign, some two thirds of Mexican people don’t feel that they would be safe in police custody.

We will expose the failure of judges and prosecutors in Morocco and Western Sahara to investigate reports of torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement and security services, allowing torturers to visit violence on their victims with near total impunity.

We will highlight unchecked torture in the Philippines, where five years on from the introduction of an Anti-Torture Act, not one person has been convicted of torture — despite a raft of allegations against police.

We will condemn the routine abuse of suspects by security forces in Nigeria, where torture is not even a criminal offence.

Finally, we will take on the might of the state of Uzbekistan, where prosecutors and judges sing from one song sheet to drown out the voices of victims. A thick shroud of secrecy cloaks the machinations of a paranoid government, and those who dare complain — from the peaceful protester to the out-of-favor oligarch — risk brutal reprisals.

Amnesty’s campaign is for the implementation of recommendations informed by more than 50 years of research into torture.

When my father was taken into custody, my mother and I desperately called around every human rights organization we knew. I believed then that organizations like Amnesty International make a real difference. I believe it more than ever now.

My father was lucky to walk free at the end of his ordeal. Many more in India — and around the world — do not. Torture must be stopped. Help stop it with us.

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy magazine on 13 May 2014

For more information:

Global crisis on torture exposed by new worldwide campaign (News, 13 May 2014).