Three decades after the U.N. Convention Against Torture imposed measures to eradicate the practice, torture still happens in 141 countries — many of which are signatories to that convention — according to Amnesty International’s annual report on torture released Tuesday.
According to the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” That agreement, as well as the various Geneva Conventions and the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights, have all dictated an absolute ban on torture for any purpose — even in times of war.
And yet, in police headquarters, secret prisons and CIA black sites, detainees across the globe report being subjected to torture as a means of extracting information or confessions, silencing dissent or simply as punishment. The Amnesty report details 27 categories of torture reported in the past year, including electric shocks, mock executions, water torture, rape and sexual violence and the pulling of teeth.
Though many point to U.S. influence, it is difficult to identify correlations among states that do torture; they are not all authoritarian and many are signatories to every international convention prohibiting torture.
One factor Amnesty observed in some countries was inadequate training for police and intelligence officers, who resort to torture as a shortcut to proper investigation when they know there won't be repercussions for their actions. Brazil and Mexico, two states where police enjoy frequent impunity for their transgressions behind closed doors, had the highest percent of respondents say they did not feel safe from torture if arrested.
In other countries, the use of torture is part and parcel of broader state-sponsored discrimination against minorities — including religious groups, ethnic groups and LGBTQ communities.
“Take China, where we have a situation where the state reacts with suspicion or outright hostility towards ethnic and religious minorities," said Bochenek. "There are consistent reports of harassment, arbitrary detention and torture of Uighurs or Tibetan Buddhists — anybody who does not belong to the official recognized religious group.”
National security has been cited in Nigeria, where Amnesty received a flood of reports accusing security forces of unwarranted detention and brutal torture amid the state's campaign to crush the Boko Haram insurgency, which has killed more than 4,000 people in five years.
Fifteen-year-old Suleiman Ali told Amnesty he and 50 others, mostly teenagers, were accused in March 2013 of having ties to the radical rebel group and taken to a security facility in Yobe State nicknamed "Guantanamo." There, Ali said he was beaten and had plastic melted on his body. Ali was released a month later and survived after emergency medical treatment, but most of the other 30 prisoners who were released died.
As international condemnation and U.N. conventions have not proven sufficient deterrents against the use of torture in extenuating circumstances, arguments that torture can be an unreliable interrogation tool — torture victims will often say whatever the interrogator wants to hear in order to make the pain stop — or that it can even be counterproductive to national security might hold more sway.
Many say the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques used at CIA detention facilities like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, which included waterboarding until 2009, fueled anti-American sentiment and undermined U.S. credibility on human rights issues.
"The U.S. has incurred tremendous damage to its ability to conduct foreign policy," said Bochenek. “It also means the U.S. might have had more ability to persuade other states to change their torture practices. Now they’ve lost that.”