TORTURE: ASIAN AND GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES | APRIL 2012
VOLUME 01 NUMBER 01
by TISARANEE GUNASEKARA
In Asia, the time has come to speak of torture, from rooftops.
The anecdotal evidence presented by the contributors to this inaugural issue reiterates a profoundly disturbing truth: in Asia, torture is everywhere. Torture flourishes both in long standing democracies such as India, and in relatively new entrants to the democratic fold such as Indonesia. Torture has made its modus vivendi with the rule of law, enabling it to pervade not just countries like Sri Lanka where the rule of law is being replaced by the law of the rulers, but also countries like India which have managed to maintain an enviable degree of judicial independence. Nor has the scrupulous exclusion of the military from politics and civil affairs provided an adequate bar to torture in Asia.
Asia thus effectively debunks the deeply ingrained belief that torture happens only in anti-democratic or non-peaceful situations.
By demonstrating that torture can coexist with democracy and the rule of law, the Asian example compels us to rethink many of our familiar, comfortable and comforting catchphrases about torture.
Torture’s ubiquity in Asia is such that it has become an integral part of the continent’s everyday landscape. Torture is so ‘normal’ that governments are rarely held to account for practicing it, judicial systems are often lackadaisical in dealing with it, national media ignore it and the public is indifferent to it. This insidious normalisation of an abhorrent practice is a colossal bar to combating torture in Asia.
To be able to banish torture from our midst, we need to acknowledge its presence amongst us. Before combating the problem of torture, we need to transform torture from a non-issue into an issue.
A public outcry against torture cannot happen in the absence of public acknowledgement of and public debate about torture.
If asked, most people would readily oppose torture, in general. But many of these opponents of the idea of torture would have no difficulty in finding some ‘good’ reason to excuse – even justify – the practice of torture, in particular. Though opposing torture in the abstract, they will have little hesitation in extenuating torture, if it is applied to the ‘right’ people, at the ‘right’ time, for the
‘right’ reason. These ‘acceptable victims’ will vary from place to place and from time to time; but almost always there would be somebody ‘deserving’ to be tortured, for the sake of ‘national security’ or ‘political stability’, ‘law and order’ or ‘public welfare’,
‘tradition’ or ‘religion’….
In the absence of a frank and vibrant public discourse, the public perception of torture as an ‘acceptable’ method of uncovering crimes or punishing the guilty, of protecting the innocent, controlling threats or safeguarding traditions cannot be countered. And so long as torture remains acceptable socio- psychologically, no amount of laws will be able to weaken its hold on our societies, our homes and our minds.
There cannot be a ‘little bit of torture’ any more than there can be a ‘little bit of rape’. There is no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ torture, any more than there is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ child- abuse. Torture is a moral-ethical crime which corrodes the humanity of not just the victim and the perpetrator but also of the indifferent bystander. It is an aberrant practice which
should have been left behind in the dark past of humankind.
Asia needs a new politico-social paradigm which re-sensitises us to torture, de- normalises the practice, ends its trivialisation and places it squarely on political and public agendas, on par with other anti-democratic practices and rights violations. Torture will persist in Asia only so long as there is no public interest and no popular pressure from within to end it.
The poor, racial/religious minorities, oppressed castes and women are more likely to become victims of torture. As these vulnerable segments form majorities in most Asian countries, the possibility of turning torture into a popular issue with political and electoral gravitas exists. For that to happen, the battle against torture must be relocated to seminar-circuits and conference rooms in the villages and townships of Asia and the habitats of those people most likely to be victimised by it. The anti-torture battle must be redefined from being an esoteric matter to an issue of central importance to trade and peasant unions, students and women’s organisations, religious and ethnic minorities and oppressed castes.
For most of human history, from nations in the East to nations in the West, torture was an accepted practice in statecraft. Its outlawing began with the French Revolution. The fight against torture in Asia will have to draw politico-ideological strength from anti-torture measures enacted by every society and anti-torture battles waged by every people. The “Eastphalian dystopia”, currently vogue in parts of Asia, may become a major impediment to the battle against torture on the continent. This Asian remake of Westphalia seeks to use national sovereignty to divorce the continent from the universal struggle to win and maintain democracy, human rights and human dignity. By enshrining anti-democratic systems, consisting of super-powerful rulers and utterly subjugated citizens in patriotic or nationalistic discourse, Eastphalia will create viscerally enabling environments for torture.
The war against terror has caused the resurrection of pro-torture sentiments even in the West. In Asia, it has provided torture- supporters with a potent justification for their position. Fear dehumanise the ‘Other’ and justifies the unjustifiable in the name of nation or family, patriotism or tradition. Fear also reduces us to reacting defensively and pre-emptively, causing us to disregard the commonality of our human existence. Where fear and hatred of the ‘Other’ exist,
torture is made possible. Illegalising torture is a necessary but insufficient condition for a truly democratic society. Torture must be de- legitimised as well, politico-psychologically and socio-culturally. Before slavery could be combated successfully in the US, it was necessary to dismantle the myth of the ‘happy slave’. Before child labour was abolished in England, arguments about its economic necessity had to be debunked. Torture will survive so long as we fail to change the political and socio-psychological landscape conducive to the practice. The “ideas battle” over torture must first be waged and won for other political battles to succeed.
Tisaranee Gunasekara is a Sri Lankan columnist based in Colombo.