chapter  2
Contextualizing Torture
Pages 15

According to the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Art. 1.1), torture is severe pain or suffering (mental or physical) that is inflicted by or with the acquiescence of a public (state) official.1 Also, it is conducted for a particular purpose such as to punish or obtain information from a victim. To pursue a legal case thay may reach the threshold of torture, the victim has to have experienced an intense degree of suffering. In reality, as campaigners like Amnesty International (2000) argue, these different harms often overlap; and, none are permissible. Torture is condemned throughout an array of international human rights

instruments and bodies, including the UN Convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, three regional mechanisms,2 a Special Rapporteur, and a focused UN Committee (Rehman 2003). It is one of the few international human rights that is universally applied and cannot be derogated from. As the UN Convention against Torture (Art. 2.1) states, ‘no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture’. More broadly, torture is seen as one of the most serious violations that an individual can endure. For victims, torture represents shocking forms of violence, including:

beatings; kickings; stretchings; whippings; burnings; electroshocks; genital mutilation, rape, and other forms of sexual assault; cuttings; suspensions, including hangings and crucifixions; breaking bones; amputations; teeth or fingernail extractions; falanga, the blunt trauma to the soles of the feet; attacks by animals; submarino, forced submersion into water, urine, vomit, blood, faeces, or other matter; injections or the use of chemicals to cause, for example, blindness; teléfono, boxed ears; asphyxiation; and the deprivation of food, water, sleep or sanitary conditions (Allodi et al. 1985; Arcel 2002; Rasmussen et al. 2005; Rejali 2003). It can also encompass psychological pressures such as: humiliation (for example, forced nakedness); brainwashing; infested surroundings (for example, by lice or rats); sensory overload; confined isolation; mock executions; death threats or the forced witnessing of

others being tortured (Arcel 2002). Torture can include regimes of detention – such as solitary confinement – and does not just refer to the infliction of bodily pain. Still, many victims do die from torture and those who survive often endure chronic long-term physical pain and psychological disturbances. Nonetheless, in the late twentieth century there was a marked resurgence

in torture’s use (Evans and Morgan 1998). Between 1997 and 2000, torture was inflicted in 70 countries by three-quarters of the world’s governments (Amnesty International 2000). More recently, this resurgence has been clearly illustrated in the treatment of prisoners held within US-governed detention centres in Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, and elsewhere. The initial graphic depictions of detainees being subject to violations brought international attention and a military tribunal – unusual results for most torture events. In return, a vigorous legitimizing discourse in support of torture has emerged within political, academic, legal, and social spheres. In the light of this conflict between codified norms and practice, and in an

attempt to make sense of torture’s persistence, this chapter examines the instrumental nature of torture. That is, it evaluates the use value of torture to state operations. A historical analysis of the development of torture is not presented as this task has already been undertaken by scholars such as DuBois (1991), Langbein (1976), Lea (1878), Peters (1985) and Ruthven (1978). Instead, the chapter develops an historical overview that critically examines the ways in which structural forces, institutional, ideological, and social practices, and personal relations combine to underpin torture practices across the world (more specific analyses on how torture emerged and consolidated in Timor-Leste can be found in Chapter 5). The chapter shows how torture operates along dichotomies: while certain

techniques of torture may emphasize ‘stealth’, other forms are overt in their brutality; while torture may be denied, it can also be given legitimacy by state practices; while the use of torture may face sustained resistance, it can also garner widespread public support. In addition, the chapter illustrates that the decisions as to which individuals will be tortured, and how, are linked to issues of status, particularly with regards to class, ‘race’, and gender relations. These relations are also fundamental in terms of victims’ abilities and resources to cope with their situation. Thus, this chapter shows how torture can reflect and underpin global disparities within structural relations, an issue further intensified by the ways in which torturers build status through their work. Finally, in exposing the personal, social, and structural consequences of

torture, this chapter details how torture links to numerous sequelae that effectively destroy human security, create conflict, and give rise to further status disparities. With particular attention placed on how torture survivors are personally affected, yet often ignored, this chapter sets the ground for a human rights ethos that is based on a full recognition and condemnation of violations.