Torture: An affront to humanity
On the occasion of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, Andreas Wigger, head of the ICRC's Protection Division, talks about his encounters with torture victims and about the ICRC's role in the fight against torture and other forms of ill-treatment.
What is torture?
Let me first say that torture is an affront to humanity. It is an assault on human dignity, an aggravated form of inhuman or degrading treatment inflicted with the aim of, among other things, extracting information or a confession, or silencing a person or group. It is also used to coerce, punish or intimidate.
Acts of torture and of other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment include rape and other sexual violence, using electrical devices to deliver shocks to sensitive parts of the body, depriving people of food and water or of sleep, staging mock executions, beating or lashing people, stripping people naked, humiliating them, threatening to do any of these things, and more. It would be impossible to draw up an exhaustive list. The human imagination knows no bounds.
That being said, ill-treatment is not a mere "technique" on a list, but necessarily also involves the victim's experience as an individual and a whole range of circumstances. The following factors – again, the list is not exhaustive – alone, or combined with others, can constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment: overcrowding in places of detention, solitary confinement, lack of daylight, lack of fresh air or ventilation, insufficient food and drinking water, inadequate sanitary and hygiene conditions, lack of health care, prolonged exposure to excessively high or low temperatures, lack of contact with the outside world, etc.
What is the current situation in terms of torture?
Sadly, we have seen that no country or community is immune to torture. Despite an absolute prohibition enshrined in international and regional law that is designed to prevent torture and other forms of ill-treatment – or, failing that, to punish perpetrators and provide reparations for victims – these prohibited acts occur in many countries, often systematically. The ICRC still finds credible evidence of the use of torture, occurring in particular at the time of arrest and during investigation. In situations where torture is not merely alleged but clearly established, it frequently happens that no suitable action is taken.
Although torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment cannot be justified for any reason, be it political, economic, security-related, cultural or religious, I can only lament the fact that in recent years, especially in the context of the so-called "war on terror," many States have tried to justify the use of coercive methods of interrogation as a legitimate means protecting national security.
If nothing changes, tens of thousands more men, women and even children will continue to be mistreated and tortured. So long as their fellow human beings condone this, and do nothing to prevent acts of torture, there will be torturers and victims.
What effects does torture have on the victims and their relatives?
For most victims, torture and other forms of ill-treatment are the beginning of a never-ending nightmare. The physical consequences are serious and can be irreversible, sometimes even causing death. However, it is also important to bear in mind that the psychological scars may go deeper and last longer. They almost always require long-term rehabilitation.
Moreover, the pain and injury caused by torture are felt not only by the direct victims, but also by their families and friends. The well-being and dignity of children, parents, spouses and other relatives and friends are also under attack.
Last but not least, torture has an impact on perpetrators and their superiors, regardless of whether they are acting under specific orders or out of ignorance, profound conviction, real or perceived social pressure, or self-interest.
Ultimately, torture and other forms of ill-treatment have an effect on entire societies.
What is the ICRC's position on torture?
The ICRC's position is that the absolute prohibition on torture is laid down in numerous international instruments, including Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions – the core of international humanitarian law – which prohibits cruel treatment and torture, and outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment. This prohibition is effective everywhere, at all times, and in all circumstances.
Taking action against torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is a key part of the ICRC's work in behalf of people behind bars. Because we at the ICRC have a deep conviction that such practices are absolutely unacceptable, we are striving to take action against them in a comprehensive way. The primary objective is to provide protection and assistance for victims and to contribute to their rehabilitation. To help achieve this aim, the ICRC is prepared to do everything it can to create or strengthen an environment conducive to the prevention of ill-treatment.
What can the ICRC actually do?
Detention by its very nature puts detainees at risk of ill-treatment. The risk is particularly great in the early stages of detention, during the investigation period, and when detainees are held in total isolation, or at unofficial or secret sites. Detainees in these situations are completely cut off from the outside world and are at the mercy of their captors.
The ICRC seeks access to detainees at risk as soon as possible after their arrest. It endeavours to repeat its visits and to individually monitor detainees where necessary. ICRC visits represent a first step in the fight against forced disappearances and against torture. In response to allegations of ill-treatment, the ICRC urges the detaining authorities in confidential dialogue to take all necessary measures to prevent and put an end to any such practices. It is crucial that visits be repeated in order to protect detainees from reprisals when they dare to speak out about torture and other ill-treatment.
In parallel to dialogue with State authorities and non-State armed groups, the ICRC strives to provide torture victims and their families with support and direct assistance. Unfortunately, however, the support it can provide is limited, especially as long as the victims remain in the hands of their tormentors. Nevertheless, ICRC staff members endeavour to at least show them kindness and respect, and to listen to their concerns. In addition, ICRC medical staff can give medical advice and make sure that medical treatment is provided where needed.
In parallel, the ICRC also speaks out strongly in favour of the independence of health staff working in prisons and in favour of respect for medical ethics. Once detainees are released, or find themselves in a more conducive environment, the ICRC may provide them with material support or with advice on where to obtain psychosocial support. For example, some National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies have expertise in this field and run facilities providing such support.
Why is it so difficult to put an end to this practice?
Impunity for perpetrators and fear and paralysis within society are the main obstacles in the fight against torture. It is even more difficult to fight torture when it is perceived by some to be a legitimate tool of law enforcement. There is often equivocation about torture in public debate, in speeches of politicians, in films, on TV, in electronic games and elsewhere, which makes it easier for people to believe that the only way to protect their own dignity and humanity is to deny them to "the enemy."
It is our responsibility to explain that torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment are weapons that can destroy the very fabric of a community and put people’s lives and well-being at risk. Abuses breed hatred, erode people's trust in the system, and can cause deep resentment within communities. Ultimately, torture fuels a cycle of revenge.
Governments must also do their part. First they must declare their commitment to preventing torture by acceding to international treaties. But it is also crucial that the necessary laws be enacted and implemented at national level, that those who contravene those laws by using torture be prosecuted and punished, and that victims be assisted. In addition, full respect for the fundamental legal protections and judicial guarantees of detainees helps not only to prevent abuses but also to improve overall detention conditions.
Torture is not inevitable, and organizations such as the ICRC stand ready to help governments that want to eradicate it.
Mr Wigger, what did you find most striking when you visited detainees on behalf of the ICRC?
During a career with the ICRC spanning 28 years, I have worked in prisons a lot and visited many detainees in many different countries, some of them ravaged by armed conflict. It has been an extraordinary experience, a powerful human experience.
I met people who had been ill-treated or even tortured – that moved and disturbed me greatly. It's at times like that that you come to realise the importance of the work you're doing as an ICRC delegate, which goes beyond what is set out in a "mandate." It consists in establishing a relationship of unfailing trust between yourself and people who have experienced terrible and painful things. To listen to their stories is to enter into their intimacy in the strongest possible way. I remember the look I saw in people’s eyes, and moments of silence more eloquent than words.
When you work in prisons you can also feel powerless in the face of a reality that is not your own and yet is part of your everyday life. These days I am the head of the ICRC's Protection Division, and it's my job to ensure that our commitment to helping detainees remains one of the ICRC's priorities. I am still convinced that the ICRC is making a useful contribution to the fight against torture and other forms of ill-treatment around the world, despite the scale of the task.