Torture's pastures

On the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, Dr Natasa Mavronicola, Senior Lecturer at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham and Thematic Adviser to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, offers a perspective on the prevalence of torture in the modern world.

International day in support of victims of torture

Reflecting on his experience of Auschwitz in At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities, the Austrian essayist Jean Améry located the ‘negation’ of one’s fellow human being in torture, a process which seeks to colonise a person’s body and extinguish their spirit.

Accordingly, Améry suggested that torture, an act which so starkly denies the very humanity of a person, was the ‘apotheosis’ of Nazism, which ‘hated the word “humanity” like the pious man hates sin, and [thus] spoke of “sentimental humanitarianism”’. That torture is antithetical to the minimum respect demanded of our mutual humanity is now reflected in its absolute, unconditional and universal prohibition at international law.

Nonetheless, as we celebrate seventy years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and commemorate the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, torture remains rampant across the world. It does not persist in a vacuum – rather, it takes root and grows on the margins of human regard which are continuously (re)produced within and across our societies.   

In his book Torture and Democracy, Darius Rejali highlights the prevalence of torture in ancient republics and points out that it was inflicted ‘exclusively on noncitizens: slaves, barbarians and foreigners’.

In Torture and Truth, Page DuBois reflects on physical torture in ancient Greece and how it delineated ’the boundary between slave and free, between the untouchable bodies of free citizens and the torturable bodies of slaves’. Applicable in ancient Greece and other contexts in which torture and slavery have intersected, DuBois’ account identifies the scars of torture as a physical ‘marker’ of lesser status.

Looking at more recent practices of torture, Rejali views torture as a ‘civic marker’ demarcating those deemed worthy of being treated as fully human from those deemed less worthy. These are not just terrorists and criminals, but also street children, vagrants, loiterers, and illegal immigrants.

Torture is part of a cycle of othering – it happens to ‘others’ and marks them as ‘other’. Victims of torture often find themselves in the hands of torturers because society has vilified, marginalised or abandoned them. As Nigel Rodley argued, ‘when [torture] is part of an institutional practice…the victim is – must be – dehumanized, seen as an object…be it [as] a class enemy, a race enemy, a religious enemy, or a foreign enemy’.

Torture thrives where hatred, stigma, marginalisation, discrimination or systemic disregard prevail. Those whose life and welfare are rendered marginal are considerably more vulnerable to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Unfortunately, this marginalisation tends to remain constant, if not amplified, following their experience of torture or other ill-treatment.

Across the world, victims of torture are often killed or disappeared, abandoned to brutal and exploitative criminal networks, or placed in prolonged or indefinite detention. They are often denied medical treatment, rehabilitation and asylum, and are isolated and disregarded within their wider communities.

While affirming a commitment to the prohibition of torture in principle, many states are often prepared to deport victims of torture or send persons to places where they face a real risk of torture or other ill-treatment. They often close shelters and rehabilitation centres for victims of torture or other ill-treatment, remove or restrict victims’ access to justice, undermine or deny human rights protections more broadly, and engage in a wide variety of other practices which create fertile conditions for torture and demonise, disempower or silence actual or prospective victims of torture.

As we commemorate this day, it is vital to foreground and listen to victims of torture, to recognise the diffuse ways in which torture is made possible, and to confront the role that all too many of us might play in creating or perpetuating peripheries of humanity where torture thrives.

Dr Natasa Mavronicola is Senior Lecturer at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham and Thematic Adviser to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The views expressed in this piece are hers alone, and are discussed more extensively in her chapter in the forthcoming second edition of Ben Goold and Liora Lazarus (eds), Security and Human Rights (Hart 2019).