To mark the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the ICRC is reaffirming its strong commitment to the fight against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. To this end, it is unveiling its new operational policy on this all too widespread practice. Edouard Delaplace, who advises the organization’s Geneva-based Unit for Persons Deprived of Liberty, explains in this Q&A provided by the ICRC what the ICRC’s approach aims to achieve.
What is the ICRC’s position on torture?
The ICRC’s position is very clear. Torture constitutes an intolerable outrage upon the victims themselves and upon human dignity. It is and must be prohibited absolutely. This is not only a reflection of the law – it is first and foremost our profound conviction based on ethical considerations and a sense of humanity. No grounds, be they political, economic, cultural or religious, can justify torture or other forms of ill-treatment. Nor can torture be justified on the grounds of national security.
After more than a century of visits to detainees, the ICRC possesses a large body of knowledge on the subject of torture. In recent years, over 500,000 people have been visited by the ICRC in some 80 countries. Every day we see the distress and dehumanization of thousands of people who have been physically and mentally damaged, sometimes beyond repair. It is this firsthand contact with torture victims that has forged our conviction and strengthened our will to fight actively against this scourge.
We also need to bear in mind that torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment carry within them seeds of destruction that can attack the very social fabric of a community or a society. Finally, torture constitutes a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law and the international law of human rights.
Is torture becoming less widespread? What are your observations?
Unfortunately not. It is very widespread. There is no country, no society today that is entirely immune from this phenomenon in one form or another. In some cases, we may be talking about a single isolated act in a police station or a prison, and in others a systematic, institutionalized practice. But whatever form it takes, it is a major source of concern for the ICRC.
It is very difficult to find figures that give an accurate picture of the scale of the phenomenon. Nevertheless, in 2009, the ICRC published the results of a survey carried out in eight of the countries most affected by armed conflict or other armed violence – Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia and the Philippines – to try to understand the impact on civilians. Of the respondents who had themselves suffered violence, 17% said that they had been tortured. We cannot extrapolate this figure, but it does give an idea of the prevalence of torture in periods of armed conflict.
What is the main focus of the ICRC’s response to torture and ill-treatment?
The battle against torture is a priority for the ICRC. We have just finished reviewing the framework in which we operate (ICRC policy on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment inflicted on persons deprived of their liberty ) in which we reaffirm the ICRC’s commitment, consolidate practices developed in recent years and suggest new approaches for our work.
Our aim is to protect and assist victims of ill-treatment and their families. They are the ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts.
One new initiative is the ICRC’s work, carried out in partnership with other organizations, in the field of rehabilitation for victims of torture and other forms of ill-treatment. Further examples are the support given by the ICRC to national authorities to help them improve the practices of their officials regarding detainees, and the ICRC’s efforts to help create and bolster a legal, organizational and ethical environment conducive to the prevention of torture at national and even local level, as well as on a regional and international scale.
Practically speaking, what does the ICRC do to help torture victims?
The ICRC’s work is based on the visits it makes to people deprived of their liberty to assess the conditions in which they are held and the way they are being treated.
We know that it is at the time of arrest and in the days that follow that people face the highest risk of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, and the aim of the ICRC’s visits is to protect detainees. Of course, our presence alone is not always enough to stop or prevent ill-treatment. But people in detention often tell us that these visits provide them with a welcome respite.
For men and women detainees who have been tortured, a visit by an ICRC delegate provides reassurance that someone recognizes their existence and their suffering. Helping those people recover a sense of their dignity by speaking to them, giving them time and attention, is the first thing an ICRC delegate when he meets someone who is in prison. The ICRC’s visits can also be an opportunity for a man or woman who has suffered ill-treatment to see a doctor who may be able to give information about the possible effects.
These visits also enable the ICRC to provide detainees with services such as an opportunity to contact loved ones and exchange news with them through “Red Cross messages”.
Outside places of detention, the ICRC intends to act more consistently and on a greater scale to offer victims rehabilitation. It is increasing working with organizations that specialize in this field.
In recent years, we have seen a rise in international terrorism and a proliferation and radicalization of armed conflicts. Have these factors given rise to greater tolerance of torture?
The debate on torture regularly emerges into the public arena. It has probably rarely met with as much interest as in the last decade, particularly in the Western world, where it has also been amplified by virtually unlimited real-time access to information. In an environment marked by the radicalization of conflicts, resistance to anything that can be perceived as interference in the domestic affairs of States, and international cooperation in the fight against terrorism, we have seen people put forward once again the old argument that torture works and that it is the price to be paid for our security. This is a utilitarian argument that totally negates the value of the individual human being.
The question as to the legitimacy of torture forces all of us, both as individuals and as a society, to face up to hard questions of an ethical nature. What importance should we attach to protecting the dignity of people deprived of their freedom? Is it conceivable that the safety of the individual and the community can be preserved by a system that fails to protect the dignity of the individual, be he a suspected terrorist, a political dissident, a drug trafficker, a common criminal or simply a person going about his business?
The law has provided a clear answer to these questions. The prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is absolute. And the ICRC intends to go on affirming and defending that absolute prohibition.
The subject nevertheless remains highly emotive. The changing environment has prompted us to revisit our answers and look for new ones, based on the law but also going beyond the law. It is precisely by being mindful of the challenges of the current environment that we can shore up the prohibition on torture and better protect people deprived of their liberty.
How can the ICRC help eradicate torture? Can you give us a few examples?
Torture is an extremely complex phenomenon. Its prevalence or otherwise may be influenced by a wide range of factors involving individuals, the law, the mechanisms of governance, and ethical convictions.
The ICRC takes a comprehensive approach, the primary aim of which is to provide victims with protection, assistance and rehabilitation. At the same time, however, it helps to create a legal, institutional and ethical environment conducive to stopping these practices, and where such an environment already exists, to bolster it.
In terms of the legal environment, the ICRC tries to ensure that the prohibition on torture and other forms of ill-treatment becomes an integral part of national constitutions and that these rules are incorporated at the various levels concerned. For example, the rules on use of force by law-enforcement officers, or the professional ethical codes of lawyers, judges and doctors, should reflect the prohibition of ill-treatment and the need to actively prevent it.
When it comes to the institutional environment, if we want to prevent torture, we need to have monitoring and disciplinary measures in place. Monitoring and observation mechanisms may take the form of visits by an NGO or support from the legal profession. At the same time, violators must be prosecuted and punished through mechanisms such as internal disciplinary enquiries in the police force, the courts and the army. And these need to be effective. The ICRC works to strengthen these mechanisms.
Bolstering the ethical environment is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. Where certain values are not deeply rooted in society, it will be much more difficult to have an impact on the phenomenon of ill-treatment. For the ICRC, ethical arguments should therefore be at the forefront. It is vital to be able to influence the debate on torture if we are to have a chance of making a real impact.