Q&A: Torture and International Law

What is the history of international laws against torture?

Akila: The prohibition on torture, at least in modern international law, began with the universal declaration on human rights that was passed in the 1960s and contained a general prohibition on torture and cruel and inhumane treatment. This prohibition was replicated in the 1970s in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Prohibitions on torture were also contained in the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

Around this time, in the 70s, Amnesty International began a campaign to get a declaration through the UN or another binding treaty body prohibiting torture.  Due to this campaign, in 1975 the UN passed a non-binding declaration on torture.  In the ten years after it passed, Amnesty did important documentation and individual reporting that found the declaration wasn't serving its purpose. This began the push and process of advocating for a stand-alone convention against torture. The Convention Against Torture was formally drafted in the early 1980s and was ratified by a number of states somewhere between the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Grant: It was opened up for ratification in 1988 and I believe it came to force in 1994, so it took six years for a critical mass of states to accept it and for it to become enforceable, which is pretty typical of any international treaty.  In writing the Convention the drafters very much had a traditional view of torture in mind. They were thinking of what we might think of as a James Bond-esque type of interrogation where there is one person under the control or custody of another person who wants information from that person either to use that information against them in a court of law or for whatever government purposes. So, when you read the Convention you see a lot of that type of language, regarding, formal interrogation by a state.

A: Yes, they were considering issues around the French engaging in torture against the Algerians in the 1950s, the British using torture against the Irish in their civil war, those were the recent experiences in people's minds, ideas of the state trying to elicit information. This is also what we see in the US today, when people think of the torture they think of Bush Administration, of water boarding, etc.

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