Torture is back. Not that it ever went away, but the unprecedented global crisis in 2020 has brought it out in the open. States, from Mexico to Niger to Kazakhstan to India have used the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on dissent, silence critical voices, target marginalised groups, entrench their power by postponing elections, and more. Brutal behaviour by police and the military, under the pretext of enforcing sanitary rules, has reached new levels, with men, women and children humiliated and beaten, or at times even killed, simply for being outside their homes during a curfew.
Prisons have become perfect incubators for the Covid-19 virus, putting a sudden spotlight on the worldwide detention crisis and its frequent companion: torture and other ill-treatment.
Beyond the pandemic, we’ve seen an authoritarian State, Belarus, massively use torture to quell peaceful protests against a rigged election. And we’ve seen an American citizen, George Floyd, tortured to death by a policeman in broad daylight, on the streets of his democratic country.
Listen to Professor Nils Melzer, United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, explain what lies behind increasing levels of police violence, and what can be done to counter this alarming trend.
Adaptation and creativity
As human rights violations have been on the rise, those tasked with monitoring and reporting them have been paralysed by the freezing of international travel, national lockdowns and other sanitary measures, whether legitimate or opportunistic.
And yet. I am amazed at how much we managed to achieve last year – by “we”, I mean the OMCT and the over 200 members of our SOS-Torture Network. Together, we advocated with prison authorities and policy makers to ease dangerous overcrowding in prisons and managed to have detained children released in Togo and the Philippines. In India and Peru, human rights defenders who had been arbitrarily detained recovered their freedom after joint international campaigns. In Tunisia and elsewhere, our team found ways to continue helping victims of torture every day, despite the lack of physical contact.
It was about adaptation, creativity, and sheer resilience. It was about reliance on technology when possible, but also on old-fashioned solidarity networks that continued functioning despite the crackdowns. As the pandemic was raging, we managed to document and attract global media attention on the extrajudicial killings of children in the Philippines. When we were not allowed into Belarus, it was our Russian Network member who undertook the on the ground research into the brutal treatment of protesters and the complete denial of justice. You will find many more examples in this Annual Report.
We all know that the pandemic has acted as the great revealer of so many fault lines that were already there – economic, social, political – while at the same time deepening them. I take hope in the fact that it has also revealed the relevance of our movement and our capacity to be there when it matters, even in unprecedented times.