< Viewpoints < 2006

"Torture can never, ever be accepted"


[27/06/06] Torture is totally banned in international law. Under no circumstances should anyone have to suffer torture or other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. This is clearly established in UN treaties, the humanitarian Geneva Conventions and the European Convention on Human Rights. No exceptions are allowed, ever.

The absolute nature of this prohibition has given it a moral dimension: torture has been made “unthinkable”. This has been one of great landmarks in the struggle for human rights in modern times. On this basis, mechanisms have been created to ensure that persons arrested or imprisoned are treated in a humane manner.

One example is the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture, which visits countries – sometimes without prior announcement – in order to inspect places of detention. The advice given by the Committee has been of great support to governments wanting to ensure respect for human rights.

European and international human rights treaties also stipulate that governments are responsible for the protection of individuals against substantial risks of torture. To return asylum seekers or migrants to countries where they risk being tortured is therefore also a human rights violation.

These standards have been severely undermined since September 2001. The US administration has introduced interrogation methods which clearly violate the international prohibition of torture. Some of them have been physically brutal, for instance “water boarding”, during which the prisoner is forceably held underwater.

Religious or sexual humiliation and the threat of dogs have also been used to “soften up” prisoners. Sleep deprivation, long periods of hooding, loud noises and very high or low temperatures have been combined in a systematic manner. Such methods of “sensory deprivation” were once used in Northern Ireland but were found unacceptable by the European Human Rights Court of the Council of Europe and were stopped by the UK Government.

These methods have been approved by the current US Government in its so-called “war on terror”. In order to square that policy with binding international norms, the administration has attempted to change the very definition of torture to include only treatment which causes severe bodily injuries. Rightly, the UN Committee on Torture refused this innovation.

The fact that the US administration no longer accepts the international standards on torture can only increase our concern about its policy of secret detention and extraordinary rendition. Such methods are in themselves clearly illegal, even in relation to persons suspected of terrorist activities.

This is the background to Senator Dick Marty’s report to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. It documents evidence of European complicity in what he describes as a US-spun “spider’s web” of secret extra-judicial arrest, transport and detention extending across the globe.

The Marty report does not pretend to establish the whole truth – how could it, considering all the secrecy? But it presents facts indicating governmental co-operation with unlawful CIA activities, either directly or indirectly through failure to control them. These facts are corroborated by reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. General unsubstantiated denials ignoring the detailed charges no longer suffice; governments need to respond in detail. They have a positive obligation to do so.

Lessons should now be drawn. European governments should ensure that their territories are not used for the illegal transport of detainees and they should absolutely not hand anyone over to security agencies in the hands of which they may be tortured or made to “disappear”.

“Diplomatic assurances”, whereby receiving states promise not to torture specific individuals if returned, are definitely not the answer to the dilemma of extradition or deportation to a country where torture has been practised. Such pledges are not credible and have also turned out to be ineffective in well-documented cases.

The governments concerned have already violated binding international norms and it is plain wrong to subject anyone to the risk of torture on the basis of an even less solemn undertaking to make an exception in an individual case. In short, the principle of non-refoulement should not be undermined by convenient, non-binding promises of such kinds.

Terrorism is an abhorrence. The murder of innocent persons in order to terrorise a whole society can never, ever be defended. However, to respond with illegal means is to capitulate to the evil forces. Experience has shown that torture and illegal detention are ineffective for the purpose of information gathering. But even if such methods would yield results in an individual case, they must still not be used – because they undermine the very values we want to defend in a society built on respect for human rights.

Thomas Hammarberg


Alleged secret detentions and unlawful inter-state transfers of detainees involving Council of Europe member states (Doc. 10957, 12 June 2006)

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