The Incomprehensibility of Torture
We all have a fairly good idea of what torture is. In Europe, many think back to the darkest Middle Ages: beds of nails, thumbscrews, the Catholic Church's Inquisition, witch hunts and burnings, or the Procedure for the Judgement of Capital Crimes (Carolina) of Emperor Charles V. In Latin America, some associate torture with the Spanish conquerors and often with the brutal methods used by military dictatorships against political dissidents in the 1970s. Thoughts about torture often evoke the gruesome images from Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and other Bush-era places of detention where torture was used: a pile of naked men, stacked by U.S. soldiers, or broken and humiliated individuals in orange prison uniforms whose senses and perceptions have been intentionally disoriented by scientifically backed mental torture methods.
Although we can describe or define torture, we cannot fully grasp its essence if we have never experienced it. Try as we might to comprehend the suffering of a torture victim, our powers of imagination simply fail us. Forty-two years ago in Vienna, my first-ever interview with a torture victim for the publication Lateinamerika Anders resulted in my becoming physically ill. As Erik Zott, who later became a friend, began to describe his experience under the Chilean junta, I suddenly felt the urge to vomit and had to interrupt the interview and leave the room. It was impossible for me, physically and psychically, to enter his world of suffering and torment.
Little did I know at the time that in the course of my life and work I would interview countless torture victims and survivors all over the world. I can listen to and document their testimony and experience, but it is beyond my spiritual and mental abilities to grasp the physical pain and mental suffering of these tormented human beings.
Assault on the Core of Human Dignity
As in the case of slavery, torture represents a direct attack on the essence of human dignity and integrity. Whereas slaves were legally denied their humanity and were consequently demoted to the status of an object that could become the property of others, torture is the de facto dehumanization of humans. Slavery and servitude are the de jure authority of man over man. Torture is the de facto authority. Victims are humiliated and disgraced, often stripped of their clothing, hands and feet bound, frequently suspended off the ground and forced to remain in a defenseless and painful position. They are made to feel helpless and dehumanized, the better to extract confessions or other information from them.
Torture is so repulsive that, following the ghastly methods used by the Nazi henchmen in the Gestapo and SS, it has been resolutely proscribed and condemned the world over as no other human rights abuse has, even in wartime and states of emergency. In order to eradicate it, the international community—no doubt influenced by the abuses inflicted in Chile, Argentina, and other military dictatorships in Latin America—agreed in 1984 to declare that torturers are hardened criminals and enemies of humankind, and thus they should be denied safe haven anywhere in the world. More than 160 states, which are bound by the UN Convention against Torture, accepted the legal obligation to arrest every individual found on their territory who is suspected of torture anywhere in the world. Unless these individuals are extradited to the state where the act was committed or to their country of origin, they must be prosecuted before the courts of the country that arrested them and, if found guilty, punished with lengthy prison sentences.
Human rights defenders like myself had hoped that this method, which relies on the principle of universal criminal jurisdiction, would be a deterrent and that torture, along with slavery and genocide, would disappear by the end of the twentieth century, and that our children would read about this unfathomable practice in history books and not in the daily papers.
Sadly, we were very much off target. Because we are unable to fully grasp what it means to be tortured, we cannot help but banish the idea of it to the remote Middle Ages, or to the equally unimaginable practices of National Socialism, or even to a far corner of our planet. However, my research indicates that torture is still routinely used by the police in the majority of states in the twenty-first century. There is ample evidence that it cannot be relegated only to the tool kit of some sinister rogue state's secret police, because it is standard police procedure in democracies as well.
The Purpose of this Book
This book is based to a great extent on my own experience as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture from 2004 to 2010. In this capacity I, along with several different teams, was able to visit a significant number of states and their prisons and police stations. I interviewed perpetrators, witnesses, and victims of torture (in particular those in detention) on the subject of torture and conditions of detention, and then documented my findings and reported them to the United Nations.
It is not my intention to criticize or pillory the governments of these states which, although they were under no obligation to do so, invited me to visit them as UN Special Rapporteur. On the contrary, I am grateful to these governments for enabling us to carry out our research on the ground objectively and to report on it publicly.
This book does not attempt to point a finger or condemn, but it does try to make the unfathomable more comprehensible and to clarify the causes and dynamics of the routine nature of torture. It could be described as a wake-up call, an attempt to stir up empathy for the "forgotten detainees" and to point to ways of preventing torture and perhaps even eliminate it altogether one day. We already know how torture can be prevented, or at least reduced to a minimum of isolated occurrences. Putting this theoretical knowledge into practice, however, will only work if enough people become outraged at the issue of torture. The resulting moral and political pressure should force responsible authorities to take the necessary measures to put an end to the practice.
The global society of the twenty-first century needs more "rebels" made of the same stuff as the late French diplomat Stephane Hessel who, at the age of 94, called out to us to "react with outrage." Alas, the dream of a new human rights-based world order, born in the Nazi concentration camps and torture chambers and gaining momentum at the end of the Cold War, has now faded amid the War on Terror, among other disturbing developments worldwide. We urgently need a new civil society movement, similar to those that emerged during the military dictatorships in Latin America, or during the Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. We need a new global consensus to effectively eradicate torture.