TORTURE: ASIAN AND GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES | JUNE 2012
VOLUME 01 NUMBER 02
Interviewed by NILANTHA ILANGAMUWA
Professor Darus Rejali is a distinguished expert on torture. He is an Iranian-born American academic, specializing in torture, who teaches political science at Reed College, USA. In an interview with the Torture: Asian Perspectives, Professor Rejali briefly discussed some of the socio-political aspects of torture. His primary work is Torture and Democracy and was published by Princeton University. It was awarded the 2009 Lemkin Award by the Institute for the Study of Genocide and The American Political Science Association picked it for the 2008 Best Book in the Human Rights Section. The book extensively examines the facts about, and strategic changes of, torture in order to evade international conventions and agreements. “In the 20th century, there were two main traditions of clean torture— the kind that doesn’t leave marks, as modern torturers prefer. The first is French modern, a combination of water- and electro-torture. The second is Anglo-Saxon modern, a classic
list of sleep deprivation, positional and restraint tortures, extremes of temperature, noise, and beatings, “he observed.
Torture and Democracy immediately lays claim to be the most compendious and the most rigorous work on the subject to date. Rejali is also the author of Torture and Modernity: Self, Society, and State in Modern Iran.
Here is extract of our interview with Rejali:
Question: Many countries have passed laws against torture, yet it still regularly occurs in many parts of the world, regardless of the letter of the law. What is it that makes some countries more likely to abide by anti-torture laws and others more likely to ignore them?
Answer: Social scientists don’t know the exact causal factors. But the evidence is that only signing the Convention Against Torture (CAT) does not make a country less likely to commit torture, and seems to be correlated with increases in torture in some cases. There could be many reasons why.
Question: While the United States and other Western countries have repeatedly made headlines over the years with high profile torture cases and counter-terrorism related assassination campaigns, in many Asian countries torture, abduction, and extrajudicial killings has become a part of daily life for ordinary people. Local police, paramilitary organizations, as well as the intelligence agencies of various central governments, actively participate in such acts. Do you see anything that makes torture in Asia unique when compared to countries in other parts of the world?
Answer: The demand for torture comes from three general sources as I describe in Torture and Democracy: perceived national security threats, judicial systems that favor confessions, and quiet local domestic relationships between police and powerful local citizens. The last is not as newsworthy but probably infinitely more common and can account for more torture worldwide that happens than what intelligence and security agencies do. I have not studied Asian torture specifically to have a view. All three are present in Asia as in elsewhere, though I think Asia has particular difficulties with its judicial systems as I describe in Torture and Democracy using the Japanese case.
Question: The UN has made repeated statements against torture, including resolutions condemning such actions in countries like Sri Lanka, but these never seem to have an impact on human rights abuses. Why don’t these types of international pressure work, or do they work? What types of international pressure, if any, might have greater success?
Answer: Countries appear to respond to international norms on torture when failure to abide by these norms results in the loss of aid or legitimacy necessary to get economic or political assistance. When a country is more dependent on major powers that have little incentive to raise human rights issues – Iran, North Korea, and Sri Lanka are all examples – the government is less likely to be open to international pressure of any sort. But even if it was susceptible, this would only address one demand for torture (government), and not many other forms of torture that arise from domestic and local relationships.
Question: Asia has seen significant political changes in the last few years. Iran brutally suppressed political dissidents who protested fraudulent elections in 2009. The Arab Spring has resulted in political upheaval, not just in North Africa, but in Syria and Yemen, where heavy fighting has broken out. Saudi and UAE forces helped to crush dissent in Bahrain and the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan seems to be as grim as it has ever been. Even in China, dissent and government crackdowns against it appear to be on the rise in recent times; however, other countries have enacted reforms to prevent social upheaval, the US led coalition is, for the most part, out of Iraq, and Myanmar (Burma) seems to have begun reforms as well. Do you think human rights abuses across Asia are likely to decrease over the next decade or do you anticipate conditions worsening before they improve?
Answer: There is no easy way to make a prediction, even as an expert. Given that the problems that lead to these conflicts are not going to disappear in the next decade, I think you have answered your own question.