Torture: the evil that is never far away

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 June, 2008, 12:00am

As another International Day for Victims of Torture approaches (on Thursday), a question many may ask is: why should they care? As if there aren't enough things in life to worry about, torture is often the farthest thing from our minds. And, for good reason, as it happens to be a very unpleasant topic.

Yet, torture is something that happens on a daily basis in many Asian states. It continues to be the interrogation method of choice for police who lack proper tools or skills to carry out investigations. It's also used by military and paramilitary groups to silence government critics and intimidate the community. In fact, many Asian states have seen torture become a systemic and institutionalised practice where the perpetrator is rewarded and the victim is punished.

So, why should anyone care? After all, the people being tortured are probably guilty of something, since the police have arrested them.

The truth is that most torture victims are not guilty of anything other than being powerless against the state. They are generally poor, marginalised and forgotten. Or they are outspoken and critical. Either way, they cannot defend themselves against the brute power of the state.

But torture victims are strangers, from far away lands; even if they were innocent, why should anyone care? They may be strangers, but they share a common phenomenon. Torture is a global tragedy that has, at some time, afflicted every society and culture. Although torture is generally associated with weak nation-states, it would be naive to think that it could not return to the most economically advanced societies. It has already reappeared, with some western politicians endorsing alternative interrogation techniques for alleged terrorists.

Since the signing of the Magna Carta, freedom from torture has taken the west over 800 years to accomplish, all of which could be lost in a moment. The only hope for ending this practice is through universal condemnation and solidarity with victims. This must come from a grass-roots level, as politicians will only act under pressure from the public.

Even with a shared common goal in eliminating torture, what can one person do? That is easy: torture needs to become a mainstream topic. It must be rejected by businesses and denounced by civil society. It needs to be taught by teachers and discussed by students. It needs to be written about and scrutinised, understood and de-stigmatised. It must become part of our everyday vocabulary.

Above all, the community needs to reach out to those who have suffered from torture. Thousands of refugees come through the city, often fleeing torture at the hands of despotic regimes. Many of them are women and children who have experienced sexual violence.

This year's International Day for Victims of Torture should be seen as an opportunity for people to reflect on what they have, how easy it could be lost and, most importantly, to understand that torture victims need our support.

Robert Hanlon is a PhD candidate at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong