“Nothing can justify torture under any circumstances”

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By Paonam Thoibi

CASE 1…Tomba (name changed) was abducted by uniformed men late one night from his house. Three days later, his dead body was found somewhere with different clothes and along with some bullets. …

CASE 2… Chaoba (name changed) didn’t return home since he went out with a friend for some tea at the local tea-stall. He reappeared some weeks later and related his ordeal in custody where he was kept blindfolded, tormented and tortured. He continues to live in fear now, avoiding everyone, and refusing help…

CASE 3…Debola (name changed) lives with three small children. Her husband was shot dead inside their bedroom by an unidentified gunman in front of her and her son. After the incident, she says that she has changed a lot. She is now easily frightened, gets startled and edgy most of the time…

These are happenings familiar to us all today in Manipur. The common element in all the three cases is a systematic and deliberate infliction of severe pain or punishment, even unto death, on a person over whom he or she has no physical control. Torture is hence outlined by the cases.

Torture is defined in the UN Convention against Torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.” But, social health researchers have offered a wider definition of torture as the systematic and deliberate infliction of severe pain or suffering on a person over whom the actor has no physical control, in order to induce a behavioural response from that person.

Torture is prohibited under international law, and the national laws of most countries. It is considered to be a barbaric violation of human rights, and is declared to be unacceptable. Torture is a global problem. The biggest world body, the UN, has repeatedly committed itself to fight torture, but inspite of this torture is still practiced in a large number of member states. Torture is often used as a weapon against democracy. It is no surprise, therefore, that it is the States that covet democratic ideals and principles who lead the present worldwide campaign against torture.

Torture is aimed at intentionally destroying the soul, identity and personality of a human being. Severe torture often leads to death, which can be also be intentional and not a mistake. It is committed with the knowledge and approval, tacit or otherwise, of the government. Mostly, torture is performed in detention settings and also publicly. It is often targeted to political workers, union/student leaders and members of ethnic/national minorities to ensure a state of repression and fear. Even the common man, women and the children are not spared. Torture is also meted out by armed opposition groups, which possess some characteristics of government.

In most of the cases, where torture is perpetrated by the authority, persons are picked up randomly and exposed to severe custodial violence ending with release or death of the victim. Methods of torture may vary, using both physical and mental methods separately or in combination. Commonly employed methods of torture are blind-folding, beatings with blunt instruments, electric or water (submarine) torture, burning with cigarettes or electrically heated bars, being hung up, limiting movements and being packed in a small cell, with poor sanitary access and any requests to use the toilet often denied and turned into pretexts of more torture, deprivation of human contact, sleep, food and life-saving drugs, etc., mock execution, forced witnessing of torture of near ones. Many victims are threatened with having to do or say things against his or her beliefs or convictions by attacking their fundamental identity, such as self-respect and self-esteem.

Torture is not only inhuman and unbearable; it results in serious physical after-effects. But worst of all are the psychological consequences it often results in, such as depression, anxiety, nightmares, feelings of changed personality, shame, guilt, low self-esteem, isolation, a deep mistrust in other people, impaired memory and concentration, headaches, sexual problems, fatigue and a severe impairment of a person’s normal functions. Survivors may not have similar after-effects of torture. However, survivors brutally traumatized are at the risk of developing severe and long-lasting problems, often feeling powerless, helpless and paralyzed. All their reactions are typical considering that they have been exposed to something very cruel, inhuman and abnormal, constituting a serious threat to their well-being and lives.

Medical professionals working to help torture victims in the 70s made an important discovery. Experiences of torture take time to be forgotten, but it is possible to “recreate” a meaningful life by overcoming the after-effects of torture. They have developed principles and techniques to heal a victim of torture covering the whole physical, psychological, social, legal and spiritual aspects of a person.

There are many national and international non-government torture treatment and rehabilitation centers today, which aim at responding as best as possible to the needs of the people who are affected.

Torture, like violence, is recognised today by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an international public health problem. It is a hidden crime against humanity; and, like “the silence of the lambs”, the tortured suffer meekly in solitude, silence and shame. We would not be mistaken in saying that torture happens every day. The prevention of torture can only become a reality when torture is exposed and the world becomes aware about the practice of torture, its methods, who the perpetrators are, and what the ill-effects of torture can be.

Torture does not happen in vacuum. The socio-political context and the availability of tools and techniques for inflicting pain rely on a failure of political will. If the governments of the world had the political will to stop torture they could do so.

As a legal attempt to prevent torture, the United Nations adopted a Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment on 10th December, 1984. The Convention required that states should take effective measures to prevent torture within their borders, and forbids states to return people to their home country if there is reason to believe they will be tortured. The government of India signed the UN Convention in 1997 but has not as yet ratified it till date exposing its lack of political will and hypocrisy regarding its lofty democratic claims.

Nobel Peace Prize laureates, the likes of Kofi Annan and Sandrine Salerno, Mayor of Geneva, formally signed the “Nothing can justify torture under any circumstances” Manifesto on 23 June 2010 to launch an international campaign to alert everyone to the dangers which a society that tolerates torture risks.

“…….Security, the right to a decent social and economic life, [political] and cultural freedom belong to every member of society. They not only belong to innocent people whose dignity and freedom are inviolable by the state and who must be guaranteed respect for their physical, mental and moral being, but also to offenders who should expect to be judged by independent courts where penalties are defined by law. These rights also belong to the police and judiciary, who have the duty of building a safe society by such legitimate means as are worthy of their professions. They belong to victims, who must renounce vengeance in their demands for justice and compensation. They belong to women, who in their domestic and professional lives must be confident that they will be given equal treatment with men. They belong to indigenous and ethnic minorities who also enjoy the same rights as any other members of the human family. They belong to the poor, for it is no crime to struggle for a better life. They belong to migrants and displaced people looking for the security denied them in their home countries. They belong to those who defend human rights, whose efforts deserve recognition and support; for any infringement of their rights affects the rights of the victims they defend. Finally these rights belong to society as a whole, where no progress is possible without the individual and collective belief that we can create a world in which such rights are guaranteed to everyone…….”

The UN has marked June 26th as the International Day in Support of Survivors and Victims of Torture. Each year both the government and non-governmental bodies are expected join hands to denounce torture. They must reach out to the victims and survivors of torture to help them cope with the after effects and trauma of the torture they had underwent, survived or witnessed. This year, as we pay homage to the victims who succumbed to torture, the day signifies the world’s commitment to help the survivors rebuild their broken lives.

(Author is a Client Service Professional and Clinical Psychologist at the Human to Humane Transcultural Centre for Torture and Trauma (H2H), Lamphelpat. Contact her at h2h.inform AT gmail.com)

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