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Observations by the ACATs on the social and political realities in their countries

May 2007

[English] [français]

"L‘interdit de la torture




Lungern (Switzerland) - 30 April – 2 May 2007


Observations by the ACATs on the social and political

realities in their countries


30 avril 2007



The preparatory group for this seminar discussed issuing a questionnaire to the various ACAT groups to ascertain whether or not torture was currently a topic for debate in their respective countries. This was prompted by the fact that in many countries in the North torture is being discussed at a purely theoretical level or with a view to watering down the ban on torture in the fight against terrorism and that, in countries in the South, torture is an everyday problem.

In the questionnaire, the preparatory group also asked which players in society were taking action to uphold the absolute ban on torture and how public opinion was reacting to such action. It also asked about the stance of churches in the countries concerned and the steps taken by the various ACAT groups themselves to defend the ban on torture. Another question related to the expectations surrounding the seminar.

At the end of 2005, the ACATs (associations and local groups) received a letter, accompanied by the questionnaire. Altogether, replies were received from 13 ACATs and local groups.

Before providing you with a summary of the replies received, we should like to express our deep thanks to all those whose often strenuous efforts have enabled us to examine the problem issue of torture today by gaining an insight into the real social and political circumstances in which our ACATs are operating in their respective countries and thus identify the main trends.


An analysis of the responses to the questionnaire gives the following picture:


1.                   Is a debate on torture taking place in your country?

Contrary to what one might be tempted to think, there is no real North-South divide here.

As regards Africa, our friends in Cameroon, Benin, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC- Kinshasa/South Kivu) point to a debate. In Europe, torture is on the agenda in Germany, Great Britain and Switzerland. However, in Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy and Canada there is no such debate, because there is a consensus surrounding the ban on torture, with such practices considered as alien to those countries.

We should distinguish between the debates within civil society and those in the political arena.

In Congo, although a debate is under way within civil society, politicians are seeking to ignore or explain away actual torture practices. The same is true in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

By contrast, the public has not responded in any way to the discussion of torture in the Spanish parliament.

In France, the torture issue has not triggered a public debate. Politicians are remaining tight-lipped. This pact of silence is broken only when mention is made of the torture practised by the French army during the Algerian war (the last of France’s colonial wars, fought from 1954 until 1962, which was to lead to Algerian independence).

This matter remains controversial today.


2.                  Is torture a reality in your country?

The countries of Africa are in the front line against this scourge. Sadly, torture is routine and practised by State agents (in police stations, prisons and so forth). Spain is also familiar with the phenomenon of torture in the context of its anti-terrorism legislation.

In addition to torture practised by the authorities, the African continent has to contend with domestic violence stemming from traditional practices, in the form of levirate marriages, excision and forced marriages for young girls, as invoked by ACAT Congo and the two ACAT DRC offices.

In referring to the situation in their own countries, some European ACATs highlight instead inhuman and degrading treatment by the police (Switzerland), in prisons (Luxembourg and Great Britain), and against asylum seekers (Belgium).

3.                  How has public opinion reacted to the debate on torture?

ACAT Switzerland refers to public opinion as lethargic.

However, in more general terms, there is broad hostility to the use of torture, especially outside national borders, although in more extreme cases it is accepted (viz. Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib). In this context, ACAT Switzerland alludes to the Dutroux case and ACAT Germany to the Daschner case and to serious and dangerous situations such as the fight against terrorism.

Dutroux case: Dutroux was a paedophile convicted in Belgium for abducting and illegally holding six young girls, four of whom were found dead. The errors and blunders made by the police and judiciary during this case provoked a public outcry in 2004.

Daschner case: In 2002 the deputy police chief in Frankfurt-am- Main ordered police superintendent Ennigkeit to threaten a detainee and child molester with torture if he failed to divulge the whereabouts of the child he had abducted, whom he suspected was still alive. Thus threatened, the child molester revealed where the boy was; he was found there dead. The two police officers were found guilty by the Frankfurt Landgericht in a trial which attracted huge public scrutiny. This exemplary case provided the backdrop for lively debates between supporters of the "ticking bomb" principle and advocates of the absolute ban on torture.

In France, this subject is more often than not taboo.

Public opinion in Africa would appear divided. For some, torture is generally justifiable in helping the authorities crack down on crime. Others, such as NGOs, challenge this.

In Benin, the media expose and condemn torture, and the subject is debated. That said, the issue of terrorism does not feature a great deal in public debate.

In the DRC, insufficient attention is paid to the torture issue, which is often played down.


4.                  What stance do the churches and religious communities take?

Most ACATs agree that the Christian churches, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike, expose and condemn the use of torture, as do the religious communities.

The Roman Catholic hierarchy in Spain provides an exception, in that it never takes a stance on this matter.

In Great Britain it would seem that the churches rarely speak out on torture.

ACAT Luxembourg points out that torture is not a major concern for the churches. By contrast, ACAT Canada points to the courage shown by the churches in speaking out against attacks on fundamental human rights.


5.                  Is the perception of torture shifting within society?

ACAT Cameroon evokes a sea-change in the perception of torture since torture was criminalised and supervisory measures were put in place in places of detention. In Benin, increasing numbers of citizens are opposed to vigilante justice and inhuman and degrading treatment. In the DRC, a distinction should be made between the political rhetoric which denounces torture and the reality on the ground, which is quite different.

There has been no perceptible shift in Spain.

ACAT Luxembourg notes that the fear of terrorism has led society to accept investigatory methods that run counter to human dignity and curb civil liberties. ACAT Canada and Great Britain echo this.


6.                  What reactions against torture have you observed?

This question did not elicit a great response from the ACATs! In short, the churches' noticeable opposition to torture stems from their view of the respect for human dignity and of human beings as having been created in God’s image; for their part, NGOs, politicians, the judiciary and, indeed the military cite strict compliance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the foundation of democracy.


7.                  Has your ACAT been able to intervene in the debate on torture?

They have indeed.

Some ACATs (including ACAT Cameroon) allude to debates on torture on private radio stations, community-led debates, and meetings with the police (ACAT DRC, Kinshasa office).

Conference debates are mentioned by ACAT DRC, South Kivu office and ACAT Luxembourg.

Together with Amnesty International and the Association for the Prevention of Torture, ACAT Benin is campaigning for the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT).

In spring 2005 ACAT Germany joined other organisations in signing and publishing a memorandum against torture.

ACAT Spain has associated in court actions with the public prosecutor dealing with three cases of torture in Catalonia.

ACAT Luxembourg has been at the forefront of moves for a declaration against torture by the Luxembourg Council of Christian Churches.

ACAT Belgium (French-speaking) is working on a bible study project focusing on torture.

One of ACAT Italy’s priorities is to campaign together with Amnesty International for a change in criminal law to make inhuman and degrading treatment a crime on a par with torture.


8.                  What are your ACAT’s expectations with regard to the international seminar?

Not all of the ACATs which responded to the questionnaire answered this question.

However, two main ideas can be gleaned from the responses:

·        In terms of discussing issues, the main expectation is for a well-documented and thorough exchange of ideas the part of the ACATs, including spiritual reflection, with a view to coming up with tools to help combat torture.

·        As regards contacts, it is hoped that fruitful exchanges between ACATs will lead them to build up lasting contacts.

·        Lastly, many ACATs look to FIACAT for support for their activities.


One last observation is worth mentioning:

The replies from ACAT associations and groupings highlight what might be termed “best practice”, with several groups reporting success in their anti-torture campaigning thanks to cooperation with other social groups.

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