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Confronting the Current Chalenges to the Universal Ban on Torture

October 2006

This year, the annual European Seminar had taken place from the 15 September to the 17 September at the Benedictine Abbey of Sint-Andries, near Bruges.

- Content and aim of the Seminar

The practical aspect: During the first part of the programme, focused on the theme of the 2007 International Seminar: "The ban on torture, a principle under threat". This benefited from the presentations delivered by Eric Prokosch, a former member of the International Secretariat of Amnesty International, and Marie-Jo Cocher, FIACAT’s Executive Secretary. We discussed in depth about what we is our understanding of the fight against terrorism and its consequences on the ban on torture.

With the 2007 International Council in view, the second part of the programme was a discussion on the general situation of FIACAT as well as its aims and its goals. On the Sunday morning, we went back on the activities and tasks of both FIACAT and the ACATs, we shared information and assessed action that we have taken at international and regional levels.

The social aspect The seminar aim was to meet, talk and share experiences between members of the european’s ACATs.

CONFRONTING THE CURRENT CHALLENGES TO THE UNIVERSAL BAN ON TORTURE

Statement by Eric Prokosch to the FIACAT European regional seminar, Bruges, 16 September 2006


The principle of the universal prohibition of torture is under attack. How should we respond?

The threat comes from the USA. I believe that after the horrific attacks of 11 September 2001, the top decision-makers of the US Administration must at some moment have agreed that it would be desirable to use torture as an instrument in the "war on terror", albeit without calling it torture. Along with the use of torture, the Administration set up arrangements to hold prisoners secretly and to transfer them secretly from one country to another ("extraordinary rendition"), in collaboration with the intelligence services of other countries, including countries whose secret services regularly use torture. They devised legal doctrines to exclude certain coercive interrogation techniques from the definition of torture, or to exclude certain categories of prisoners from the scope of international treaties prohibiting torture and ill-treatment. They took steps to remove legal remedies for victims of torture and their families.

At the same time, by coincidence or by design, the notion began circulating in the USA that torture might sometimes be both necessary and respectable. Very soon after 9/11, statements and articles by US intellectuals and commentators began appearing, arguing variously that torture will sometimes be ethically justified in the context of the "war on terror", and that it should be made legal, albeit with restrictions. The corollary was that Europeans who disagree and continue to denounce torture are na´ve and do not understand the realities of the US situation. Suddenly there was a public debate on the permissibility of torture, where there had been no debate before.

Let us step back for a moment and look at these developments in an historical perspective.

Over the past 30 years there has been a strong movement, including FIACAT and other organizations, working nationally and internationally to combat torture. During those years, there have been many instances where the authorities of a country, in response to political tensions and conflicts, have started torturing political opponents, suspected "terrorists" or others. As in the USA, the inception of torture has been accompanied by clandestine arrangements for carrying it out and avoiding accountability; by a weakening of the rule of law, including the removal of legal remedies; and by the appearance of ideologies justifying torture and other "harsh treatment", as with the doctrine of "national security" popular in the Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s.

In this "syndrome of the introduction of torture", the weakening of the rule of law destroys the safeguards against torture, the measures of prevention which our movement and others have worked so hard to put in place. The ideological arguments are aimed at gaining public backing for the governmental abuses and the rejection of anti-torture efforts and of those who make them.

Our movement against torture has coped with such situations many times before. But the Bush Administration’s drive for torture has wider dimensions. The attempt to evade the protections afforded by international law undermines the whole framework of international law within which the anti-torture movement operates. If the USA succeeds in thus escaping the universal prohibition of torture, other governments will be tempted to do the same. The working alliances with regimes that practice torture grossly undermine any moral pressures from elsewhere to get them to stop doing so. And the attempts to justify torture corrode the public abhorrence of torture on which our movement rests. They roll back our position, putting us on the defensive. Before, we could denounce torture as an unspeakable evil; now, our protests are seen as signs of weakness.

Taken together, the Bush Administration’s actions represent one of the greatest challenges to international human rights protection since the Second World War. How should we respond? We must combat the practice of torture, the arrangements for carrying it out and the ideology that is used to justify it. We need to engage in reflection, action, and more action.


1. Reflection

Each of us – each individual and each organization – needs to reexamine our own beliefs. Why do we oppose torture? Why do we want to end it? Are our beliefs relevant to the current world problems, and will our work contribute to solving those problems? How can we best explain our work in light of the present situation?

We need to study what the apologists for torture are saying, and discover how to answer their arguments decisively, paying special attention to the "ticking bomb" scenario. Suppose that a person, if tortured, would disclose the information needed to prevent an imminent attack that would otherwise kill many people. Should that person be tortured? What do we believe? How should we answer this question when speaking with our friends and neighbors?


2. Action in relation to the "war on terror"

This period of reflection and self-examination should lead to a rebirth of our movement, a renewal of our energy. Next, we need to discover how best to direct our efforts in facing the current challenges. What are the most important targets, and how should we direct our actions towards them?

The US Administration should be pressed to renounce the use of coercive interrogation methods and to repeal any legislation which permits them. Secret detentions and extraordinary renditions should end immediately. All prisoners held or captured by US agents should be afforded procedural rights and legal remedies, in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law norms. The US authorities should implement the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Committee, the UN Committee against Torture and nongovernmental organizations concerning the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment.

Here in Europe there are special tasks for us. We need to ensure that our governments oppose the US drive for torture and do not collaborate with it in any way. Our governments should be pressed to conduct thorough and impartial investigations into allegations of collusion in unlawful practices, and to implement the recommendations emerging from the investigations conducted by the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. National parliamentary investigations should be supported, as should investigations into specific cases. Our governments should be pressed to voice public opposition to the Bush Administration’s attempts to weaken the international prohibition of torture.


3. Other action worldwide

Finally, alongside our actions in relation to the "war on terror", we need to continue our efforts to bring an end to torture and ill-treatment throughout the world. We must keep on working for the humane treatment of prisoners, for the improvement of prison conditions and for the abolition of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments. Within Europe, we should press for the vigorous implementation of the excellent Guidelines to EU Policy towards Third Countries on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (EU Guidelines on torture). The European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights will discuss this matter sometime towards the end of the year. Our organizations in EU countries should try to ensure that the Subcommittee members from their countries attend the meeting and press for the effective implementation of the Guidelines.

The challenge of ending torture is daunting, but it is crucial for human rights and respect for our common humanity. Let us look at the challenge anew, see what needs to be done and then get down to work!


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