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Elimination of Custodial Torture and Ill-treatment in Asia

Asia: Second Regional Conference of Asian Parliamentarians & Human Rights Defenders on Elimination of Custodial Torture and Ill-treatment in Asia (November 2013, Hong Kong)


This conference is jointly organised by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and DIGNITY.

Scheduled Date: 11-13 November, 2013

States across the world deny that custodial torture and ill-treatment exist within their jurisdictions. Yet, in reality, not only does such practice exist, it is often promoted within states, as a policy, whether clandestine or open, for the enforcement of state writ. Wherever the practice is endemic, it has adopted various forms: custodial torture and ill-treatment to facilitate corruption, to maintain absolute state control, or to silence political opposition being the most prevalent.

Endemic torture and ill-treatment has proven to be expensive for the state. Law enforcement agencies that engage in such practice accumulate enormous deficit in their morality, irreparable denting the very concepts of justice, equality before law, and human dignity in that land. The psychological trauma etched into individuals and communities through torture practices has proven to be contagious, affecting the entire society, in various ways, including trans-generationally. It affects the normal functioning of the criminal justice apparatus to such an extent that, in jurisdictions where custodial torture and ill-treatment exist, courts are often reduced to mere marketplaces, where even the veneer of justice, equality, and dignity erodes.

A critical assessment of the promise and fulfilment of justice in any jurisdiction, therefore, is directly related to the prevalence and acceptance of torture as a – declared or otherwise accepted – state policy. State agencies that practice custodial torture and ill-treatment are incompatible with the concepts of equality and freedom, and negate the fundamental premises of democracy.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in collaboration with DIGNITY, has therefore made the practice of custodial torture and ill-treatment a core area of their engagement on human rights in countries. With a view to counteract the widespread practice of torture, the AHRC and DIGNITY have formed an Asian Alliance against Torture and Ill-treatment (AAATI) in 2012.

In an attempt to bring policy makers and human rights defenders eager to work against custodial torture and ill-treatment to a common platform, the AHRC and DIGNITY has organised conferences in Asia. In this endeavour, the AHRC and DIGNITY brought together Asian parliamentarians in Hong Kong to discuss this critical issue.

The first conference of Asian Parliamentarians and Human Rights Defenders on the elimination of custodial torture and ill-treatment organised by the AAATI was held in Hong Kong from 21 - 24 July, 2012. The report of the meeting has been published in Torture - Asian and Global Perspectives Vol. 1, No. 3 issued in August 2012, and in Ethics in Action, Vol. 7, No. 3 published in June, 2013.

The consensus arrived at the first conference is that the Asian governments must take firm action to eliminate torture and ill-treatment. Discussions at the conference revealed details about the widespread practice of torture and ill-treatment in the countries represented. The participants identified the cause for such endemic practice of torture and ill-treatment in their countries. The proceedings from this first meeting will be used for the second meeting as reference.

The focus for the second meeting will be to identify the reluctance of governments to achieve a substantial change in the nature of policing in their countries to bring these institutions at par with the policing systems of advanced democracies. The assumption is that as long as the old models of policing that prevail in Asia continue, torture and ill-treatment will remain an integral part of the form of states in the region.

Therefore, the need to have fundamental reforms in policing systems in Asia, in order to achieve the publicly stated aims of all the governments, i.e. to guarantee justice and equality to all people, must be discussed. Understandably, the elimination of custodial torture and ill-treatment would be one of the key aspects for such a reform.

Often custodial torture and ill-treatment is portrayed as a problem that mainly arises due to the torturers, i.e. officers who commit torture. As a result, recommendations that are made for the elimination of custodial torture and ill-treatment are often confined to suggestions for better training and education of officers, and to recommending investigation, prosecution, and punishment of the individual officers who engage in this act.

However, from experience it is proven that mere training and education will not make significant improvement to reduce the practice of custodial torture and ill-treatment. On the other hand, investigations, prosecutions, and punishment are not carried out because the governments do not establish the mechanisms required to achieve these aims.

The above approach fails to consider the fact that the central reason for the continuance of custodial torture and ill-treatment is the encouragement and pursuit of this practice by the governments of states that consider the practice as a tool for investigation of crime and for social control. This complacence of states, or rather dogged resolve to continue the practice of custodial torture and ill-treatment, arises from the fact that an old style policing system prevailing in Asia cannot function in any other way but through the widespread practice of torture.

Therefore, any serious discussion on the elimination of torture in Asia must be linked to reforms of policing systems. Reforms must be discussed and viewed with the objective of building a justice apparatus, most importantly on law enforcement units that would not have to depend on the practice of custodial torture and ill-treatment. It is this issue that will be pursued in the proposed second conference of Asian Parliamentarians and Human Rights Defenders.

The AHRC will make arrangements to prepare participants to maintain a focus on police reforms with the specific objectives mentioned, by assisting them with preparatory materials, including a questionnaire that may help them draft advance papers that will be presented and discussed in detail during the conference.

Just like the first conference, parliamentarians who have expressed interest in the elimination of custodial torture and ill-treatment in their countries and in achieving police reforms are invited for this conference. Human rights defenders who share similar interests will also be invited.

The basic approach to the conference will be that of the folk-school. Maximum effort will be expended to have a conference where the participants are encouraged to make interventions as well as seek clarification on the issue mooted. The proceedings of the conference and papers presented will be published and shared globally with the view of pursuing this discourse throughout Asia in the coming years.


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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.


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