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Torture : “…the first step is to break down the wall of silence”

25-06-2004

Comment by Alain Aeschlimann, head of the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency and Protection division, on the occasion of the UN's international day in support of victims of torture, 26 June.

 The simple eloquence of this quote * underlines what, for the ICRC, has always been at the heart of the matter in its work with people who are deprived of freedom: the focus on their situation and on their needs.  

    

 The wall of silence around prisoners can be seen as two-fold: first, the isolation of people who are detained in situations of armed conflict or internal unrest and whose very existence the authorities concerned might try to hide, or cast doubt on, as a means of increasing the pressure on them and on their families and communities.  

    

 The second aspect is the silence that can descend on prisoners themselves after going through terrible physical and psychological ill-treatment. In many cases, sometimes aggravated by cultural considerations, it can prove difficult, if not downright impossible, for them to talk with co-detainees, relatives or friends about the treatment they have endured – even though, or perhaps precisely because, the others have suffered the same barbarities.  

    

 The ICRC, which seeks to prevent and put an end to torture (as well as other ill treatment variously described in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols as “cruel”, “humiliating” and “degrading”), centres its work on the detainee’s experience and testimony; breaking down the wall of silence is the first step in what can be a painful (and painfully slow) process that, through ceaseless approaches to those responsible, aims to stop bad things happening.  

    

 The ICRC's part in that process is to dialogue with the victims, as thoroughly as possible without itself being perceived as an "interrogator"; of making detailed reports and requests for action to the authorities concerned; of repeating the visits, as often as necessary, to get improvements started. This is the stuff of patient gardeners, not sound-byte hunters.  

    

 The United Nations Convention against Torture, which was signed in 1984 and came into effect on 26 June 1987, as well as other regional treaties, try to ensure that what should be one of the most self-evident rights – not to be tortured – is enshrined in laws reflecting the will of all peoples.  

    

 In armed conflicts, when so many other laws are relaxed or completely ignored, the Geneva Conventions make it clear that wars, too, have limits.  

    

 And yet…  

    

 These treaties call on states – through provisions such as Article 127 of the 3rd Geneva Convention – to make the law part of military training, so that nobody in uniform can claim that he (or she) "didn't know...".  

    

 The victims of torture – most of whom do not enjoy the dubious privilege of the media coverage afforded those in Iraq – are waiting to know when these provisions are likely to be fully implemented and take effect.  

 

  * International Responses to Traumatic Stress, chapter 7: How visits by the ICRC can help prisoners cope with the effects of traumatic stress, by Pascal Daudin and Hernan Reyes (>Baywood Publishing Company Inc., 1996) - read document on this site.