Police reform is key to eliminate torture in Asia

Jun. 25, 2007

“They heard the thud of wood on flesh. Boot on bone. On teeth. The
muffled grunt when a stomach is kicked in. The muted crunch of skull
on cement. The gurgle of blood on a man’s breath when his lung is
torn by the jagged end of a broken rib. Blue-lipped and
dinner-plate-eyed, they watched, mesmerized by something that they
sensed but didn’t understand: the absence of caprice in what the
policemen did. The abyss where anger should have been; the sober,
steady brutality, the economy of it all.”
— Extract from “The God of Small Things”, by Arundhati Roy

The International Day for the prevention of torture should serve as a
reminder that in the following countries of Asia torture remains the
primary mode of criminal investigations; they are: Sri Lanka, the
Philippines, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal,
Malaysia, Pakistan, India, China, Vietnam and the Maldives. In all
these countries, the image of the policeman is that of a tyrant and a
torturer. In times of conflict the military also engage in
extraordinary forms of torture; the police engage in torture in times
of both peace and conflict.

The political establishments of these countries tolerate torture and
often, directly approve of it. The fact of the ratification of the UN
human rights treatises makes no difference to the actual business of
using the police as an instrument of brutality. The gap between the
ideals proclaimed in constitutions and by signatures to UN
conventions and the day to day reality of the routine use of torture
coexist. The legislature and even the judiciary of these countries
have been unable to take a firm stand to reform and to modernize
their police. Thus, in the practical operation of the legal system,
torture is considered an indispensible instrument.

Sadly, those who stand as spokesmen and representatives of morality
and ethics in these societies have failed to make any noticeable
attempt to stand firmly against the use of torture. Their talk of
love, compassion, brotherhood and sisterhood and loving kindness is
not associated with abhorrence for the use of torture by their law
enforcement agencies. Thus, the moral and ethical education of the
young takes place in an environment in which torture is not
considered an unacceptable practice. The mentalities of the young are
shaped by the old who find no shame in allowing their law enforcement
agencies to use torture and to humiliate human beings in the worst
possible ways.

This compromised position of the political, legal and social
leadership in these societies is rooted in a reluctance to touch on
the issue of police reforms, in order to bring the policing of their
societies into conformity with the modern aspirations of their own
people. Resistance to modernity expresses itself in the sharpest way
by the attempt to keep the policing system in a very primitive state.
A search into the causes of such resistance to reform the police will
reveal patterns of abuse of power and corruption in these societies.
It is the police that provide the very backbone of the skeleton that
supports the abuse of power and corruption. Torture is therefore a
political product. The politics of abuse of power and corruption
resist change into more rational forms of government, which are
accountable to the people. The police are the guardians of those
abusive and corrupt practices that the powerful people in these
societies struggle hard to maintain.

The disapproval of torture is a common feature among the vast masses
of these countries that are prevented from sharing the benefits of
the natural resources of their lands. It is in this context that the
common man sees the police as their enemy. On the other hand, the
hardcore corrupt elements in these countries see the police as a
friend. Democracy and rule of law, which are the aspirations of the
common people cannot be realised due to the alliance among the
abusers of power, the corrupt and the law enforcement agencies.

Under these circumstances, demands for the elimination of torture,
whether they come from local or international groups, remain
meaningless unless these are accompanied by an uncompromising call
for police reforms. The elimination of torture and the modernization
of the police are two sides of the same coin. As long as the police
remain enemies of democracy and the rule of law, and friends of those
who abuse power and are corrupt, torture will remain a very important
ingredient of policing in Asian countries. To democratize a society
its police must be democratized. To establish rule of law in a
society, the police must be made to be law abiding. Law breakers by
the night, who turn police stations into torture chambers, cannot by
the day defend law and order or the moral values of society.

This brings the greatest challenge to the human rights community both
local and global on the issue of the elimination of torture, which is
one of the core aspects of the defense of human rights and without
which, the concept of human rights is itself meaningless. Unless the
human rights community makes police reforms one of the central pieces
of their agenda, human rights will have little appeal to the
populations of these countries. The Asian Human Rights Commission
urges the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, the UN
Human Rights Council, all UN treaty bodies and all international
human rights organisations to make a very special attempt, on an
urgent basis to bring police reform to the centre of their work for
the protection and promotion of human rights in Asia. We also call
upon all human rights groups in Asia and also all people who are
concerned with the protection and promotion of human rights in their
countries and in the region to expose the duality involved in the
declarations made by their governments regarding the prevention of
torture, and who, at the same time refuse to reform and modernize
their policing systems.

# # #

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional
non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights
issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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