By Damian Ugwu
June 26 of every year is marked worldwide as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture by the United Nations. The day is designated to highlight the abuse of power by government officials, which manifests in this abhorrent denial of human dignity, and to recognize the bravery and humanity of victims and survivors of torture worldwide. Most importantly, it reminds everyone that suffering is unacceptable and a crime.
The United Nations General Assembly selected the day for two reasons. First, the United Nations Charter was signed on June 26 1945 – the first international instrument obliging UN members to respect and promote human rights. Second, the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT) also came into effect on June 26 1987.
Even as this year’s event is being commemorated worldwide, torture, unfortunately, is increasingly being used as a form of interrogation worldwide. One primary concern for human rights defenders is the impunity for torture. Impunity is the failure of the state to investigate violations thoroughly; to bring to justice and punish perpetrators, to provide victims with effective remedies, and to take all necessary steps to prevent a recurrence of the violation.
In Nigeria, torture is used as a preferred form of interrogation by security officials, including the police, army, and secret police. Police stations are used as a slaughter lab where limbs are broken, dreams are shattered, men and boys are tied and hung in a stake, electrocuted or subjected to a mock execution, and women and girls are violated. The aim is to eradicate the victim’s personality and deny them of the inherent dignity of the human being.
The unacceptably high crime rate, the brutality of criminal actors, and the wave of terrorism across the country are often cited by many Nigerians and security officials as justifications for using torture as a means of interrogation. This argument is also shared by many across the world. At the international level, not everyone seems to agree with the total abolition of torture hence the utilitarian reason some rely on to argue for legal exceptions. The ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario has been used by many, including scholars, to argue that the urgent need for information triumphs the ethical argument against torture. They say that the existence of a potent threat of terrorism worldwide justifies torture for the ‘greater purpose’- to save innocent lives.
Other exponents argue that following the daily rise in violent crime and terrorism, it might be expedient to allow a limited amount of torture in response to the scourge of terrorism. Torture is relatively humane compared to what terrorists mete out to their captives, including underage hostages -and there are numerous benefits to be derived from the information obtained from terrorists through torture. A common myth about torture is that sometimes it is the only way to get information that could save lives.
This argument, for me, appears too simplistic. Torture can never be justified in any form or circumstance whatsoever. It is brutal and inhumane and tends to replace the rule of law with terror. Examples abound of how the use of torture by successive regimes worldwide created a much bigger problem. Gilles Kepel, in “The War for Muslim Minds”, recalled that “The interrogations, torture, and socialization of prison turned most of the men rounded up by Mubarak into hardened militants, thirsty for revenge: they would become the foot soldiers of terrorism.”
Human rights advocates worldwide and the United Nations are unequivocal about this, that torture should be banned because it is immoral and impractical. It is unpleasant, horrible, and a clear violation of human rights. From a moral standpoint, no human should ever possess the right to degrade another human being for any cause. For the United Nations, torture cannot be justified under any circumstances, including during armed conflicts or a state of emergency. The United Nations Convention Against Torture, which Nigeria is a signatory, expressly bans torture of all civilians, criminals, war combatants, prisoners of war, and terrorists alike. This specific piece of international law forbids torture in all circumstances; this includes the ‘exceptional ticking time-bomb’ scenario. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court classifies torture as a “crime against humanity”, for which a suspect can be tried at The Hague.
As a human rights advocate in Nigeria for many decades, I have seen the worst of torture. I have seen young men and women turn to vegetables on account of their harrowing experience in police stations; I have seen young men crippled and permanently deformed by police officers in the name of interrogation. Above all, I have seen a high rate of psychological attrition among interrogators, the so-called “OC torture”, (police officers tasked with torturing criminal suspects) – It is really hard to keep such people psychologically sound when they partake in such horrible activities. I have therefore come to align myself with Lord Huffman, who argued that the use of torture is dishonourable. “It corrupts and degrades the state which uses it and the legal system which accepts it”. Similarly, I agree with Mordecai Kremnitzer, who posited that when the state itself beats and extorts, it can no longer be said to rest on the foundations of morality and justice but rather on the force.
In Nigeria, It was never for lack of legislation that security officials continued to use torture as the preferred means of interrogation. The Nigerian Constitution and, lately, the Anti-Torture Act of 2017 forbid the use of torture or any inhuman and degrading treatment. While the Constitution does not expressly make torture a criminal offence, the Anti-Torture Act (2017) specifies jail terms for torturers. Unfortunately, no police officer has been prosecuted for torture more than five years after the law’s passage. We continue to see officers employing the use of torture and other violations of human rights as tools of repression against suspected criminals, political opponents, members of minority groups and marginalized populations, human rights advocates, and those who simply voice an opinion that the government or powerful politicians do not like.
Today is, therefore, an opportunity for Nigerians to join the United Nations, civil society, and individuals worldwide to unite against torture and urge truth, justice, and accountability for perpetrators of this heinous human rights violation.