Alex Neve is secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada.
Claudia Medina was taken from her home in Veracruz, Mexico, in the middle of the night. She was beaten, kicked, sexually assaulted, electrically shocked, tied to a chair and left in the scorching afternoon sun on a navy base. Accused of being part of a criminal gang, she signed a statement she was not allowed to read and was paraded in front of the media. She later told the court she had been tortured. All but one of the charges were dropped and she was released. Almost two years later, there has been no investigation into her torture.
The global ban on torture is unambiguous, and yet torture is commonplace – in fact, epidemic in many countries. And instead of consistently rejecting torture in other countries, Canadian policy too often gives it a nudge and a wink. That complacency must give way to resolute leadership.
Universally banned; never excused. Yet Amnesty International’s new Stop Torture campaign points to torture in 141 countries, on every continent, over the past five years. That extends beyond those countries most readily associated with torture, such as Syria, Iran or China – during the campaign, activists across Canada will push to end high levels of torture in Mexico and the Philippines. Recently, Amnesty has initiated urgent action on torture in Colombia, Angola and Barbados.
Few human-rights protections are stated so unequivocally: In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, numerous other UN treaties, declarations and resolutions, and countless national constitutions and laws. No one shall be subjected to torture. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever may be invoked as a justification for torture.
Governments had good reason for that unconditional ban. Torture strikes at the essence of human dignity at the very heart of human rights. Excusing it for any reason – combatting terrorism, fighting crime, waging war – only deepens the divisions and marginalization, and furthers the cycles of revenge and repression, that fuel human-rights abuses and insecurity.
Governments also knew the ban made sense because torture doesn’t work; people will say anything to bring it to an end. And they realized that creating exceptions was a dangerous slippery slope.
The reasons it continues are many: People are tortured as punishment. They are tortured to force a confession, implicate someone else or obtain information. Torture is used to spread fear, keep people silent and terrorize entire communities. It is often an extension of discrimination and misogyny. Torture frequently stems from misunderstanding and hate.
The techniques are multitude. The imagination of cruelty knows no bounds. From brutal physical mistreatment to agonizing psychological methods, torture leaves emotional scars, debilitating injuries and often leads to death. No one is spared: men and women, young and elderly.
In all of this, torturers are greatly aided by the secrecy that keeps their crimes hidden and the impunity that shields them from punishment.
Safeguards are needed to pierce the secrecy, such as by making sure lawyers and doctors can play their role, standing between torturers and their victims. Political will is needed to shatter the impunity that denies justice to Claudia Medina.
To make that happen, we need global champions. Surprisingly, no state truly leads the effort to eradicate torture. Why isn’t Canada playing that role?
We should do so because it is a vital human-rights concern. And because torture strikes frighteningly close to home.
A growing number of Canadians have experienced torture around the world, including in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and Sri Lanka. On any given day, a Canadian is held somewhere where the risk of torture is very real.
We also face the disturbing recognition that Canadian actions have contributed to torture in many countries. Numerous judicial inquiries and court rulings have made that very clear, including the cases of Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Muayyed Nureddin, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati, Omar Khadr and Abousfian Abdelrazik. It was the central concern with Afghan prisoner transfers. And it remains a glaring human-rights loophole in Canadian immigration law, which allows deportations to torture in exceptional cases.
The Canadian connection to overseas torture is back in the news with further revelations about ministerial directions on torture and intelligence information. The directives authorize the use in Canada, in exceptional circumstances, of intelligence that was likely obtained through torture in other countries. And intelligence can be shared with foreign agencies, even when that will likely cause torture. The UN’s expert Committee Against Torture has called for Ottawa to bring the ministerial directions into line with the international ban on torture. Ottawa hasn’t budged.
Meanwhile Canada rebuffs a UN treaty to prevent torture through prison inspections. The treaty, an Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, has been around since 2002. More than 70 countries are on board, including France, Switzerland, Britain and other close Canadian allies. But despite promises at the UN to consider ratification, Canada has not done so. That makes it difficult to persuade other countries where torture is rampant to sign on.
We must press for the laws and safeguards that will prevent torture. We must refuse to give a nod to torture anywhere, any time. We must stop torture – now.