08 July, 2018

Torture (II)

A draft review of Manfred Nowak, Torture: An Expert's Confrontation with an Everyday Evil (Philadelphia: U of PA Press, 2018).  Translated from the German by Roger Kaminker.

The author was the UN Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights Council from 2004 to 2010.  He has also worked with the EU, universities, and NGOs to  investigate cases of torture, promote prosecutions of offenders, and improve conditions of detention.  Yet one of his first observations is that past all the definitions and descriptions of torture, "we cannot fully grasp its essence if we have never experienced it."  And while torture is universally condemned in international law, this direct attack on the essence of what it means to be human is used--"routinely"--by the police of most of the world's states.  The author hopes, by exploring the depths of the evil torture involves, to promote the sense of outrage prompted by the reporting on the Holocaust. Clearly, instruments of international law are not enough. He wants "a new global consensus to effectively eradicate torture."  I sense he will be waiting a long time.

Novak's description of the operations of the United Nations follows a familiar pattern: noble goals, undermined by state practice. Systematic cruelty is hidden behind a wall of lies.  So he describes how, as an investigator, he had to work under the rules promulgated by each state he was investigating. And he explores how it was possible, sometimes, to work within those rules and still learn something of value. Arranging confidential interviews and medical examinations was crucial.  When victims would describe, without police in the room, what had been done to them the evidence would almost always back up their stories. And these are the states that allowed interviews.  At some level, the officials of those states believed (or told themselves) it "wasn't so bad."  Or at the very least they thought they could whitewash the conditions sufficiently to get out of the international spotlight.  It says a lot that neither Russia or the United States would allow these interviews to take place.

The book is divided into two parts.  Part one is an overview of torture, inhuman detention, and other "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment.  Despite the Convention, what counts as torture varies by region and culture. Corporal punishment and capital punishment? At the insistence of many Islamic states, the UN Convention against torture does not include pain or suffering arising from "lawful" sanctions. Like those who define "terrorism" as the act of a non-state, this is potentially a loophole that renders the Convention meaningless.  At the same time, if a state does not enact legislation (and enforce it) against private acts of dehumanizing violence, it endures as the norm.

Part two is a survey, chapter by chapter, of torture in individual states. These are based on Nowak's investigations, ranging from Georgia to Mongolia, Nepal to China, Jordan to Austria, he established torture had occurred in seventeen of eighteen states.  The only counterexample he found, Denmark, began with a very different model of what a prisoner is and what a prison is for.  A retributionist system must be replaced by one that sees the prisoner as a human being, with all the rights that involves,working to integrate himself back into the community. We have a long way to go.

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