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franciscan - September 2005

The Society of Saint Francis, 2005

Torture: A Moral Contagion

by Chas Raws

There can be few more distressing examples of man's inhumanity to man than the practice of torture, and those of us who have campaigned against it or witnessed its pernicious effects must sometimes be reduced to despair by the apparent ineffectiveness of our efforts in the face of its global spread.

The latest step down the moral ladder has been the justification of torture as a weapon in the so-called war against terrorism and I write at a time when the House of Lords has agreed to give a ruling later in the year on the Appeal Court's decision that evidence extracted under torture is admissible in British courts - provided that the torture was not inflicted by a British agent.  I remain dumbfounded by this judgement which I find morally repugnant and alien to every concept of justice and humanity which I believed to be the birthright of western civilisation. The acceptance of torture as an instrument of control and interrogation by the US administration and now by the British legal system is indeed an example of moral contagion.

Torture is used for various purposes: to extract information, to punish individuals, to humiliate political or religious opponents, to terrorise society at large.  It is both a potent symbol for - and the ultimate expression of - the abuse of power.  It has been used by political and religious authorities for all of these purposes.  Very shortly after the foundation of Amnesty International in 1961, torture became a prime focus for its campaigning efforts.  The development of international human rights law since then has been impressive but the obscenity of torture continues in spite of all the mechanisms set up to deal with it, to remove immunity for torturers and their masters and to gain acceptance for measures to outlaw it.  Almost every member-government of the United Nations has ratified the Convention Against Torture and many include safeguards against torture in their constitutions, yet the use of torture is recorded in about two thirds of them.  Dictatorships give way to democracies but torture persists.  The European Convention on Human Rights has specific mechanisms for inspection and complaint, yet every year torture is reported in several EU member countries.

I have worked for the abolition of torture as the founder of an Amnesty International Group twenty-four years ago and a member - until recently chairman - of Action by Christians Against Torture (ACAT-UK).  I have also met victims of torture among the asylum seekers dispersed to Merseyside who come for help to our 'open door' drop-in centre in Liverpool, as well as former prisoners of conscience from the Philippines and East Timor.  I suppose the first sources of hope are the amazing resilience of these damaged people and the single-minded determination with which our staff and volunteers set about finding solutions to their problems, as well as the quality of friendship which they offer them.  Their commitment is often motivated by their religious faith which is closely linked to a deep sense of our common humanity.  There is a recognition that the suffering of those who reach us, both in their home countries and in the expected haven of Britain, is an offence against the inherent dignity of every human being.

Torture has been called 'the desecration of the human spirit'.  The most powerful speakers I have heard on the subject have insisted on this spiritual dimension of the problem: the damage done to the spiritual well-being of society at large - local, national and global - by the deliberate infliction of severe pain by one human being on another.  The Quaker Statement on the Abolition of Torture, issued in 1999, refers to torture as 'a profound evil, causing unimaginable human suffering and corrupting the spiritual and political life of the human family...'.  I am challenged by the commitment made as long ago as 1976 by a world gathering of Quakers that 'we will spare no effort until the obscenity of torture is brought to an end'.

There are several complementary responses to this evil.  The first is represented by The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture which makes available the resources of many healing disciplines to victims of torture who find their way to Britain. From physiotherapists to psychotherapists, physicians, nurses and counsellors, a dedicated team of staff and volunteers offers its expertise towards restoring as far as possible the physical and mental health of those who have been harmed by the experience of torture.  The Medical Foundation was set up by Helen Bamber, one of the first members of Amnesty International, who grasped the need to give practical help as well as campaigning against the evil of torture.  It has been said that someone who has been tortured will always remain someone who has been tortured - a full restoration of human wholeness is not possible.  But The Medical Foundation works miracles, often over long periods, to remove as many as possible of the ill-effects.

The second response is the ongoing campaign to eliminate torture from the practice of armies, police and prison staff in so many countries.  This entails seeking the genuine commitment of governments leading to positive training on the one hand and proper punishment on the other.  Immunity has been a major obstacle to effective progress and, as in Chile, outgoing dictatorships have often sought to bind their democratic successors with guarantees of amnesty for all those implicated in human rights abuses including torture, disappearances and extra-judicial killings.  However inadequate the effectiveness of international law may be in the face of such manoeuvring, it remains a sign of hope that systems and structures do exist and have proved their worth on many occasions.  It has to be encouraging that Presidents Milosevic and Pinochet and their like can no longer thumb their noses at the humanitarian ideals of the international community as represented by the United Nations and its agencies.

Finally, for people of faith there is prayer - and for Christians the example of Christ who submitted to torture as his persecutors prepared him for death.  Action by Christians Against Torture (ACAT-UK) adopted the slogan A Powerhouse of Prayer, asking members to remember in constant prayer the victims, their families and their communities and to pray for those who order, inflict or tolerate the torture of their fellow human beings.  After centuries of inhumanity and the failure of modern civilisation after the Enlightenment to turn its back once and for all on the degradation of torture, it is difficult to be optimistic about bringing it to an end in the foreseeable future, but Christian hope does not depend on optimism but on faith in a deeper reality.  So, while the number of Christians who have rallied to the cause of abolition is considerably smaller than those who campaigned to abolish slavery, we remain heartened by the enduring enthusiasm of one of ACAT's patrons, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who experienced the effects of sustained prayer during the dark days of apartheid and who believes that no evil is more powerful than the force of love. f

Chas Raws is a Quaker and recently retired Chair of the UK branch of Action by Christians Against Torture.


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