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English-speaking group Berlin (1312)

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Torture: It couldn't happen here?

26 June is the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. In 2003, Group 1312 marked this day with an information stand at the "Topography of Terror", an exhibition which details the historical background to the crimes against humanity perpretrated during the Third Reich. Our stand reminded visitors that torture is not a thing of the past: they were asked to take part in a postcard action for victims of torture in Egypt and Zimbabwe.

Since then, it has become increasingly clear that the absolute ban on torture may be under threat closer to home. In response, on 26 June 2004 the group organised a vigil at the US Embassy in Berlin.

The status of torture in international law could not be clearer: "No-one may be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". This text, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), is reiterated almost verbatim in many international treaties, including Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (1950). But more significant, perhaps, is the special status of the ban on torture. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example, allows for the infringement of certain rights in the case of a state of emergency or similar (Article 4/1), but goes on to say that " No derogation from article [...] 7 [...] may be made under this provision"; a similar stipulation is also found in Article 15/2 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Article 2 of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984) is just as clear: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

Legal texts like these can often appear far removed from daily life. But events of the past months have demonstrated that nothing could be further from the truth. Under the motto of the "War Against Terror", a new debate has awoken regarding the absolute ban on torture and whether, indeed, the ban is or should be absolute at all. This demonstrates quite clearly what the authors of the legislation cited above knew only too well: it is very easy to take a high stand on moral and ethical issues as long as they do not appear to impinge directly on one's own immediate environment.

This does not only apply to the "War Against Terror", and to the international outcry which greeted reports and, particularly, photos from Iraq detailing the use of torture by American and British forces stationed there. In Germany as well, the debate on torture has been reopened in light of the imminent trial of Wolfgang Daschner, former vice-president of police in Frankfurt, who ordered the threat and, if necessary, application of torture as a means of obtaining information from a suspect in a child kidnapping regarding the whereabouts of the child who, unknown to the police at that time, was already dead.

Cases such as this are highly emotional, as is the hypothetical "ticking bomb" scenario often stated in arguments for a slackening of the absolute ban on torture. But it is precisely in the face of such tragic and extraordinarily difficult situations that the absolute ban on torture is essential, also bearing in mind that the vast majority of cases of torture do not occur under exceptional circumstances. It is easy to want to exclude certain people from the protection against torture enshrined in international law. But torture is not something which happens to other people, or elsewhere. Every act of torture is a direct assault on human dignity, and therefore a direct assault on the very basis of the concept of human rights. Every act of torture carried out in the name of a "just cause" can be used as a justification for the systematic use of torture in whatever case appears to be "just" to the perpetrators. Every act of torture committed against someone else which we tolerate could, under future circumtances, be an act of torture committed against ourselves.

Our decision to stage a vigil at the US Embassy in Berlin was made against the backdrop of these considerations. In the previous weeks, the reports from Iraq – unfortunately no surprise to Amnesty International, which had drawn attention to the serious situation in prisons in Iraq many months before – had been supplemented by a wide range of leaked documents and memoranda which suggested that these practices had been approved at the highest level and that the US Government no longer regarded itself as bound by international law on this issue. By staging a vigil at the Embassy, supported by other Amnesty groups in Berlin-Brandenburg, we raised a counter-voice to these statements and revelations. We collected signatures on petitions to both the American Secretary of State for Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and the British Minister of Defence Geoffrey Hoon. In addition, we asked passers-by to campaign for ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture: this protocol will allow national and international delegations from the UN to visit custodial institutions without prior warning, in order to ensure that torture is not practised there. Twenty ratifications are required before this protocol can come into effect: currently, only Albania, Malta and the UK have signed. The federal states of Germany have until now prevented its ratification in Germany with a series of arguments which include, again, the belief that torture "couldn't happen here". But as the recently published report on police brutality in Germany and indeed the "Daschner case" show, we cannot afford to be complacent. If nothing else, this position helps perpetuate torture in other countries where its use is known or believed to be systematic, since the measures outlined in the Optional Protocol could prove invaluable in bringing this to light and therefore preventing further abuses.

It is important to remember that the absolute ban on torture also applies to all other forms of cruel and degrading punishment. Many of the arguments currently waged in the USA and also in Europe regarding whether or not a particular practice is torture miss the mark. Whether a practice such as sleep deprivation or humiliation is classified as torture or as cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment is to all intents and purposes irrelevant – both are forbidden, without exception.

Amnesty International campaigns continuously against torture. By signing up to the urgent action network of the Campaign Against Torture, you can support this campaign and help people under imminent threat of torture. More details.

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