Those who justify the use of torture in the private/familial sphere in parts of Asia use an identical argument. They also talk about things endangered; values, religions, cultures. They also promise to bring about safety, by using extreme measures against those who violate long established beliefs and taboos.
The struggle to end torture in Asia cannot be successful unless the attempts to excuse torture in the private sphere by using history and religion are confronted and defeated. The habit of using physical, at times lethal, violence against those who are seen as transgressors of political, economic, socio-cultural or religious norms is deeply embedded in the popular psyche throughout many parts of Asia.
by TISARANEE GUNASEKARA
The term ‘honour killing’ is an oxymoron. There is no honour in killing, certainly none in the cold blooded murder of an unarmed and defenceless human being.
The violation of human rights in general, and torture in particular, is not just what rulers do to people inside a police station, a military barrack or some other government installation. Human rights violations, including torture, can be done by people too, as individuals, communities and organisations. In Sri Lanka, the first victim of the Second JVP Insurgency was not a government politician or a military man, but a radical student leader, who was abducted and tortured to death by other students like him. In many parts of Asia, torture in the private, familial sphere is as much of a threat as torture by governments and their agents.
This month Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani model and social media star, a young woman from a working class background who risked her life to expose the hypocrisy and oppression embedded in Pakistani society, was murdered in the house she bought with her own earnings for her family. Her killer was her own brother, a drug addict who subsisted on her earnings (she was the family’s sole breadwinner). Muhammad Waseem drugged and strangled his sister, to save the honour of her family, as he told the media afterwards.
Honour killings are a plague affecting Pakistan, claiming about a thousand victims annually, almost all of them women. Yet the country has been unable to pass a law unequivocally criminalising this horrendous habit from its tribal past. Pressure from religious extremists, the lack of political will on the part of the ruling classes and societal tolerance have all played a role in keeping this brutally archaic practice alive and thriving in the second decade of the twenty first century.
The struggle to promote basic human rights in Asia must also encompass battles against acts of cruel and unusual punishments inflicted on children and women behind the closed doors of family homes. The perpetrators of these acts hide behind the ramparts of religion and tradition, of ancient values and immutable moral dictums. They deny the universality of any rights or obligations, and decry attempts to introduce such protections as external/imperialist intervention. They wave the flag of progressivism to conceal attitudes, practices and laws which are retrogressive and reactionary.
The struggle to end torture in Asia cannot be successful unless the attempts to excuse torture in the private sphere by using history and religion are confronted and defeated. The habit of using physical, at times lethal, violence against those who are seen as transgressors of political, economic, socio-cultural or religious norms is deeply embedded in the popular psyche throughout many parts of Asia. This habit is a major impediment to any serious effort to eradicate torture in Asia, be it in her police stations and military installations or her homes.
The spectacle of a supposedly liberal democratic country embracing torture is being enacted in Cleveland, USA, at the national convention of the Republican Party. Though many Republican grandees were uncomfortable with presidential candidate Donald Trump’s open advocacy of torture as a way to prevent acts of terror on American soil, the recent spate of IS and IS-inspired attacks in the US and Europe has made it near impossible for those dissenting views to be aired. Trump has artfully used the fear factor to silence whatever legal and humane qualms are extant in the base of the Republican Party. He promises to make America safe again, and insists that torturing terrorist suspects is essential to usher in that promised safety.
Those who justify the use of torture in the private/familial sphere in parts of Asia use an identical argument. They also talk about things endangered; values, religions, cultures. They also promise to bring about safety, by using extreme measures against those who violate long established beliefs and taboos. The advocates of official torture in the US and the defenders of personal/familial torture in Asia appeal to deep seated fears in their countries and communities, fears about threats from the ‘Other’ and resultant physical, cultural or religious oblivion.
For almost the entirety of recorded human history, from East to West, torture was an accepted practice in statecraft. Its outlawing began with the French Revolution. The arguments used against torture, arguments about individual and personal rights, derive in the main from the values popularised by the Enlightenment. The battle against official and personal/familial torture must go hand in hand; it must be a universal one, waged in coordination, from the Orient to the Occident.
It is as a result of such a globalised effort that change can come. And change does come even though it arrives too late for many. In Pakistan honour killers escape justice by using a legal loophole which enables the family of the victim to forgive the murderer. In response to the national and global outrage against the murder of Qandeel Baloch, the Pakistani government has announced that her murderer will not be permitted to use that loophole to escape the legal consequences of his act.
That is not enough, but it is a beginning.
 Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna