Today is International Human Rights Day, commemorating the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Thirty years ago, the UN General Assembly also chose this day to adopt the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The result of advocacy by Amnesty International and other international non-governmental organizations, the convention is also a major milestone in the development of international human rights law. It clearly establishes that the prohibition of torture is absolute and non-derogable (a special type of international law called jus cogens). It requires all governments to enact laws to effectively eliminate torture and to prosecute people who commit torture, even if committed elsewhere.
As of today, 156 countries have ratified the convention. However, over the past five years, Amnesty International has documented cases of torture in at least 141 countries. This shows that the implementation of the prohibition is not being properly done in many countries. As a result, in 2002, the Optional Protocol to the convention was enacted, mandating the creation of “national preventative mechanisms.”
Amnesty International’s current global “Stop Torture” campaign focuses on countries that have laws in place, but where torture is still “epidemic,” such as Mexico and the Philippines. For example, the Philippines ratified the convention and adopted a landmark anti-torture law five years ago, but not a single person has been prosecuted so far. After the launch of Amnesty International’s research report last week, the Philippine Senate promised to start a formal inquiry.
In Taiwan, there is a call for the government to ratify the convention and the Optional Protocol as soon as possible. Although significant progress has been made since the end of Martial Law to reduce the incidence of torture, the sad fact is that Taiwan is also one of those countries where torture continues to persist.
Many people do not fully understand the extent of torture. This is partly a result of the lack of attention to the full name of the treaty. The absolute prohibition applies to all types of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Under the convention, torture has the following legal characteristics: one, it involves severe pain, either physical or psychological; two, it is done by a public official, or with the knowledge of a public official; three, it is intentional. Therefore, in addition to the traditional type of police interrogation of suspects to force confessions, it includes ill-treatment in prisons, the military, mental hospitals and other institutions where people are confined.
The death of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘), the systematic abuse of children at a special education school and the exposure of poor prison conditions highlighted by the case of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) are all recent cases that show why Taiwan needs to have one high standard that applies to all public agencies.
Research by Amnesty International around the world indicates that a major reason why torture continues to exist is the fact that perpetrators are so rarely brought to justice, or are given punishments that are far too light for such grave crimes.
In Taiwan, even in high-profile cases where torture was officially confirmed by the courts — as in the case of the Hsichih Trio — no police officers have been prosecuted. In the special education school case, only administrative punishments were given, but no criminal prosecutions have been launched. In the Hung case, at least the officers have been prosecuted, but in the first trial they were given only very light sentences.
Ideally, in addition to properly punishing perpetrators, torture should be prevented from occurring in the first place. That is purpose of the preventative mechanism envisaged by the Optional Protocol. It would have the power to make unannounced visits to any place where people are being held to inspect the conditions and interview any people involved. By doing so, it can ensure that the other safeguards (e.g. videorecording) function properly.
Therefore, the adoption of the convention and its Optional Protocol would be a major step forward in Taiwan’s human rights development and becoming a more civilized country.
Bo Tedards is director of Amnesty International Taiwan. Yao Meng-chang is an assistant professor at the department of postgraduate legal studies at Fu Jen Catholic University.
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