Five facts to know about torture

REDRESS is convening a high-level discussion on Friday 9 June 2017 to address and dispel myths on torture © REDRESS Nederland
Juergen Schurr, REDRESS
Despite being prohibited in the strongest terms by international law, torture remains highly prevalent, with cases reported in all regions of the world every year.

Torture is not only being used by the most repressive regimes. States that ratified the UN Convention against Torture have also justified and promoted torture in recent years in the name of national security and the fight against terrorism.

States have undermined the absolute prohibition of torture by using evidence obtained under torture (which is illegal) or by sending individuals to countries where they face a risk of being subjected to torture (which is also illegal).

Some States have introduced exceptions to the absolute prohibition and narrow the definition of torture to widen the universe of permissible treatment. It has also often been invoked that “torture works” and therefore is needed to obtain information that may help to solve crimes or prevent terrorists attacks and therefore protect society.

To debunk these and other myths on torture, and to reaffirm its absolute prohibition, REDRESS Nederland, the NGO supporting victims of torture obtain justice and reparation, is convening a high-level discussion, Exceptional Measures for Exceptional Times: The Absolute Prohibition of Torture under Threat, in The Peace Palace, The Hague, this Friday 9 June.

The event will bring together decision makers, diplomats, journalists, academics and representatives from international organisations and civil society to discuss how to best counteract those arguments who are undermining the absolute prohibition on torture and innovative options for the way forward.

Here are 5 facts on torture that will be discussed during our meeting:


Torture is never allowed

The absolute prohibition of torture is enshrined in every international and regional human rights treaty and is an established norm of customary international law. States’ obligations under international law leave them with absolutely no room for manoeuvre. Torture and ill-treatment are prohibited always, everywhere and against anyone. This prohibition extends to times of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency. It also protects those who may be perceived as “enemies” such as terrorists, serious criminals or enemy soldiers. Our event will include presentations on different forms of torture and contexts in which torture is committed, including the use of sexual and gender-based violence as tool of war, torture suffered my migrants, and torture committed in the fight against terrorism.


Torture is a serious international crime

Torture is understood to be such a serious crime because it is premised on cruelty and abuse of power. Torture undermines faith in the rule of law and good governance, and puts the victims in the position where they feel no one can help them – complete and abject powerlessness – as there is nowhere to go when violence is perpetrated by their own authorities. Because it is such a serious international crime, States incur a range of obligations to prevent torture, to punish those responsible and to provide redress to victims where it occurs.  In our meeting, we will discuss the role and responsibility of the European Union in upholding the absolute prohibition on torture and examine the various obligations of States.


Torture undermines our national security

While States have an important responsibility to ensure that order and security are maintained, torture achieves exactly the opposite. Torture is illegal and detracts from the rule of law, thereby undermining national security. Our panellists will highlight the political discourse used to justify torture and discuss how best to counteract arguments that justify and promote torture in the name of national security and the fight against terrorism.


States have an obligation to investigate and prosecute torture

States are obliged to hold perpetrators of torture to account. Where a State is not willing or able to investigate and prosecute a perpetrator, other States can, or under certain circumstances, must, investigate and prosecute torturers, even if the torture was committed in another country and irrespective of the nationality of the perpetrator. Perpetrators of torture may also be prosecuted before the International Criminal Court, for example as a crime against humanity or war crime.

Our meeting will highlight the obligation to prosecute torture specifically in the context of torture committed in Syria and explore possible options for accountability available for victims.


Victims of torture have a right to redress

Torture has devastating physical and psychological consequences for victims which often can last a lifetime.  Victims of torture cannot and will not forget what happened to them. States have an obligation to ensure that victims obtain redress, including comprehensive reparation, to address some of the consequences of the torture. Redress, including the right to the truth, is also important for the broader community and society to understand what happened and that it was wrong, so that it is not repeated. Our conference will highlight the right to redress in the context of the case of Hissène Habré, former president of Chad, who was convicted by the Extraordinary African Chambers to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture, including sexual violence and rape. The Extraordinary Chambers also ordered that his victims receive reparation for the harm suffered.


About the author

Juergen Schurr is the Head of Law and Policy at REDRESS, a human rights organization helping torture survivors obtain justice and reparation. Schurr also serves as Head of REDRESS Nederland. Schurr joined REDRESS in 2006 as Project Coordinator on Universal Jurisdiction, having previously worked for various human rights organisations. After a period at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Schurr returned to REDRESS as Legal Advisor in 2010, with a focus on universal jurisdiction, and litigation & advocacy before the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, before taking up his current role.


A look at the agenda for the 9 June meeting in The Hague: