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BLOG - State Security, Torture and the Law: A Continuing Struggle

last modified Mar 08, 2017 06:50 PM

With Donald Trump having spoken in favour of the use of torture during his first TV interview as President, claiming that it was unfair for countries like the U.S to be ‘not playing on an even field’ with groups like ISIS, the panel discussion on State Security, Torture and the Law hosted by the Centre of Governance and Human Rights and the Cambridge University European Society felt particularly timely. Together, the speakers spoke both of reasons to be hopeful about recent progress in the struggle against torture, and reasons to remain vigilant.

Dr. Onder Ozkalipci, Associate Professor of Forensic Medicine, explained the significance of the Istanbul Protocol, the first set of international guidelines for investigating and documenting signs of torture so that valid evidence for legal cases may be produced. These guidelines, which became an official UN document in 1999, have since been used to train physicians in countries around the world, whose evidence is crucial in bringing cases to trial including that against the Chilean dictator Fujimori for the use of torture in the Miguel Castro-Castro prison. But the potential power of medical testimony can be seen in the threats, attacks, and even assassinations of doctors who assist torture victims. And more broadly, Dr. Ozkalipci added, global challenges for those who seek justice for torture victims include challenges to the credibility of international human rights organisations, and the lack, in certain countries, of experts, security and a functioning legal system; without rule of law, the Istanbul Protocol cannot be put to effect.

Dr. Lutz Oette, a senior lecturer in law at SOAS, added to this list a cultural and geopolitical challenge, typified by Trump’s recent statements. In the wake of 9/11, he suggested, public opinion has become more favourable to what are euphemistically termed ’enhanced interrogation methods’ for the sake of state security. In a political environment where politicians like Trump demonise the Other, there is a risk that those considered a security risk will enjoy less protection both from state officials and the general public. Of course, Dr Oette acknowledged, a realist might say that national security is more important than an individual’s suffering. But that is based on the assumption that torture extracts reliable information, when available evidence suggests otherwise. Similarly, a cynic might retort that the absolute prohibition of torture is redundant since torture is still practiced worldwide. Yet, to challenge states and resist the practice of torture would, he argued, be far more difficult if that prohibition was relativized by exemptions. Thus, in addition to vigilance regarding the practice of torture, we should also be wary of torture losing its taboo status in political discourse in ‘western’ democracies.

Finally, Dr. Carla Ferstman, Director of REDRESS, presented five difficulties for those who seek justice for victims of torture, highlighting the fact that the founder of REDRESS, who suffered torture 25 years ago, is still awaiting vindication. These challenges include the threat to lawyers, NGOs and doctors who are under threat in countries where torture is sanctioned by the state, and that, when state officials are unwilling to disclose evidence and records cannot be accessed, proving torture can be very difficult. Dr Ferstman gave recent examples from the UK and the USA of pressure applied to those defending victims of torture, and national security being used as a reason for records relating to the use of torture to not be released, reminding the audience of these countries’ mixed records vis-à-vis the use of torture. Finally, she presented the current refugee and migrant crisis as leading certain states to ignore the fact that, under the convention against torture, it is not permitted to send an individual back to a country where they face the risk of torture, whatever crimes they have committed. To avoid their responsibilities in this regard, countries have been making it hard for anyone to enter a country or claim asylum, seeking diplomatic assurances that allegedly protect the individual from torture, or declaring a country ‘safe’ even if that state currently sanctions torture. A real risk here, then, is that those countries who have appeared champions for human rights across the world, by effectively turning a blind eye to the practice of torture, appear hypocritical.

Given the potential for states to backslide in their commitment to human rights, and for politicians to rhetorically isolate victims and those who advocate on their behalf by publicly endorsing the use of torture, the speakers pressed the need for solidarity between human rights activists across different countries, disciplines and professions. And they also reminded us to be pleased with progress against torture across the world, but not complacent, as those who work for its prevention remain vulnerable in many countries, not always far from home.

Florence Gildea, the author of this blog post, is an MPhil in SociologySign up for future CGHR talks.