Excuses for torture cannot be tolerated

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 May, 2011, 12:00am


For those working in human rights, the events of the past week have led to some interesting, but challenging, debates. We have heard government officials and pundits argue that torture led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden. Somewhere, they claim, in an interrogation room in Guantanamo Bay or Bagram, someone gave the critical clue that led to this outcome.

These justifications for the legitimacy of torture have been hitting the headlines at a poignant moment for Amnesty International as we release our annual report today into the state of the world's human rights, in which we reaffirm the centrality of human rights as one of the key challenges that we face - including the absolute ban on torture.

Some claim that torture works. They argue that last week's events in Pakistan prove that torture played a role in bringing what they would call justice to the thousands of victims of al-Qaeda around the world. So how, they ask, can self-righteous human rights activists criticise torture?

But let us look at detention centres - detention centres in Tunis, Cairo, Tehran, Damascus, Manama and Sanaa, where for decades people fighting to promote democracy have been tortured by what are now being publicly acknowledged as brutal and repressive governments. And the justification is always virtually the same: these people are terrorists.

The reality is that, to achieve their ends, states often torture human rights defenders and end up protecting the terrorists. This is one clear reason why torture can never be justified.

States' explicit and visible commitment to human rights is key to preventing attacks on those who are marginalised. And that can only happen if torture and ill-treatment are absolutely prohibited. There can be no exceptions.

There is no question that those who threaten, kill, kidnap or maim must be brought to justice. But the rule against torture should apply equally to everyone.

Torture is aimed at making the victim feel powerless. After all, if a person can whip, shock, rape, drown and otherwise demonstrate complete control over your body and mind, then how can you ever challenge that power?

But torture also destroys the integrity of those who commit and order it, and therefore the integrity of the systems they represent.

It takes leadership to demand that no matter the provocation, a state will not destroy its integrity and its responsibility to respect the rights of its people.

As Amnesty International prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, we are watching those standing up in the Arab Spring showing extraordinary courage in taking to the streets, defying the risk of torture and brutality to demand their human rights.

We should stand with them. Individuals can act in solidarity to demand that governments end repression, weed out corruption and promote human rights.

But that opportunity must be matched by the leadership and courage of governments. Not governments who take refuge in torture to justify a means to an end.

Salil Shetty is the secretary general of Amnesty International