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'Torture is never justified'

Interview: Sarah SteffenMay 13, 2014

Half the people in 21 different countries fear torture, a new Amnesty International survey says. Though over 80 percent of respondents want rules, people need to know their rights, says Amnesty's Sara MacNeice.

Tortured man (photo: JAMES LAWLER DUGGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

Thirty years after the United Nations adopted the Convention Against Torture, it is still widespread in at least 79 of the 155 countries that have ratified the convention, according to new Amnesty International figures. A new report commissioned and published by Amnesty on Tuesday (13.05.2014) found that nearly half of the 21,000 people interviewed from 21 countries were afraid of being tortured when taken into custody in their home country.

DW: According to the survey, fear of torture was highest in Brazil and Mexico, followed by Turkey, Pakistan, and Kenya. Does this perceived fear match your research of torture being carried out in these countries? Are more torture cases reported in countries where fears are high?

Sara MacNeice: Not necessarily. Amnesty International doesn't provide lists of countries for the good reason that you cannot present an exhaustive list of countries that actually are guilty of torturing, that are breaking international law. There could be many others that we are actually not aware of - where we can't get the data, where we can't get the information out of the country.

Demonstrators perform a live waterboarding demonstration outside the Spanish Consulate in Manhattan (photo: ddp images/AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Human rights activist in New York are protesting against waterboardingImage: AP

We know for a fact that China has an extremely poor track record on this issue. We know that China is certainly guilty of infringing international law, breaking the law and torturing people. Yet we don't necessarily see that fear as clearly reflected there.

But there are some patterns emerging that are a little more obvious: Fear of torture is lowest in the UK, in Australia, in Canada. And then this fear is highest in Brazil and Mexico. In Mexico, we are not at all surprised to see that figure. In fact, Mexico is one of the countries that we will be asking our global membership to mobilize on over the course of this campaign. We know that torture really is quite rife in Mexico. We are calling on the authorities to do something about it. There have been small pieces of progress.

You've mentioned China. Some of the numbers are shocking. For one, fear of torture is higher in Germany - where 30 percent of respondents say they don't feel safe from torture - compared to China's 25 percent. How do you explain that?

That could be a number of factors; probably one of the more likely explanations would be the environment in which these surveys take place. The organization GlobeScan, who we worked with to conduct this survey, works with trusted partners in these countries. But the reality is that the question 'Do you fear torture?' is going to feel very different to somebody in China, in a country with a human rights record as it is, than it might do for an individual in Germany.

We didn't carry out this survey for example in Uzbekistan. We intended to and we would have liked to, but we weren't able to because it would have not been safe for individuals to actually answer these questions in Uzbekistan. So all these factors have to be considered. And it is an attitudinal survey - it's a guideline. What Amnesty relies on and how we conduct our work is our evidence, our research, the cases we work on and those individuals that we seek justice for.

Over 80 percent of the respondents agreed that "clear rules against torture are crucial because any use of torture is immoral and will weaken international human rights" - however, over a third also believe that torture can be justified in some cases to protect the public. Do you see a contradiction here?

There is a contradiction there, of course. And certainly it's very good and heartening to see the statistic of people who do want to uphold the law and the prohibition of torture. But less so that over a third say that in some cases it is necessary and acceptable.

Protesters in Brazil (photo: Imago/Fotoarena)
People took to the streets to protest against downplaying torture during Brazil's dictatorshipImage: Imago/Fotoarena

We do know that over the last decade and a half - in the war on terror context, the national security context, the counterterrorism context - that there has been quite a rollback, a bit of a change in attitudes towards torture, when torture might be okay to be carried out. And there is a lot of rhetoric and discussion around that Amnesty would absolutely push back against. Our position is that torture is never justified under any circumstances. That's the law, and that's Amnesty's position.

A majority of respondents in China, India, Kenya, and Nigeria said torture can sometimes be justified to gain information that may protect the public. Why is the public in these countries more in favor of applying torture than in, say, Greece at the lower end of the spectrum?

What they are telling us loud and clear in Nigeria is that torture happens as a matter of course. It's not something that is necessarily given a whole lot of thought. And if you get arrested, if you are taken into custody, if you are taken into a police cell, for all sorts of reasons that we know torture happens all over the world - whether that be to extract information, to extract confessions, to get somebody to basically say something, to extort money from them - all of these reasons that torture happens in Nigeria and many of the other countries that we work on, it very often happens as a matter of course.

And in some of the countries you just listed, the context is very similar. So you also have a situation I guess where people in these countries would be very desensitized to the realities around the illegality of torture and that it is completely unacceptable.

And very often people might think - when we've done some additional research in some of these countries - that beating doesn't necessarily amount to ill-treatment and torture, when in fact these treatments do. There is work to be done also in helping people to understand what their rights are in those countries and supporting those individuals to ensure that they are able to access their rights, but also to know when these rights are being violated.

Sara MacNeice is Amnesty's Stop Torture campaign manager.