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‘The scale of torture these days is off the charts’

Pope Francis has asked Catholics worldwide to dedicate June to praying for the abolition of torture. 

In a video announcing his monthly prayer intention, he noted: “Torture is not past history. Unfortunately, it’s part of our history today.”

Alice Jill Edwards, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Photo: Cordula Treml.

Someone who knows that better than most is Alice Jill Edwards, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

Since she took up the post in August 2022 — becoming the first woman in the job — the Australian lawyer and scholar has sought to persuade states to do more to stop torture. But in a world disoriented by war, disease, and technological change, that is an immense challenge.

A special rapporteur is an independent expert with a three-year mandate to advise the UN on a particular area of human rights. In the unpaid role, they engage in fact-finding missions and assess allegations of human rights violations under the auspices of the UN’s Human Rights Council.

In an interview with The Pillar ahead of the June 26 International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, Edwards said she was very pleased that the pope had focused on torture in June’s prayer intention. 

“I do think faith communities everywhere have a very important role to play as advocates for human rights, and the Catholic community is one of those,” she said.

She also spoke about whether the pope’s appeal for the abolition of torture was realistic, if the Russian government is responsible for torture in Ukraine, and whether China and India are making progress in eradicating the practice.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Dr. Edwards, is the abolition of torture — rather than, say, its containment — achievable? 

We are now in a period where there are more wars in the world than at any time since 1945. And of course with that there is an increase in torture and ill-treatment. 

There are no excuses for torture. There are no justifications. There are no circumstances in which torture is permitted. Yet what happens in the context of armed conflict is that excuses prevail or the chaos of war allows bad behavior to permeate and to be acceptable to those that are carrying it out. And I think that’s the stage we’re at. 

I think we need to spend time on prevention, taking measures to engage in training, education, reviewing laws and procedures, interrogation rules, and custody rules, as well as, of course, the whole justice side of things. 

My last report to the Human Rights Council was on the duty to investigate torture, and actually this is one of the most violated of the obligations. In the European Court of Human Rights, the large majority of cases relating to torture are literally asking the governments to investigate the allegations, of which, after the judgment is handed down, very little action is taken. 

Regarding abolition, we say more “eradication of torture.” Abolition is usually used for the death penalty, just in terms of language. But I think it’s a long way off. 

We’ve made enormous progress. There are a wide number of countries in the world that are embracing more modern ways of engaging with society, of being community-oriented police, of realizing that they’re part of the community and they’re not separate from it, and prison services focusing on rehabilitation. 

Those that are in prison at that moment are removed from society because of what they have done, but ultimately the large majority will return to society and they need to become productive members of the society. 

There are currently 173 state parties to the UN Convention against Torture. So the large majority of countries worldwide agree that torture is prohibited. 

In my last report, I counted 108 countries that have a crime of torture in their national laws. That has really improved. But of course what’s missing is this gap between the promise of the prohibition on torture and the reality. 

Sadly, my mandate at least is kind of inundated with these terrible allegations. I know there are good practices going on. I’m also trying to capture them so that governments can learn from other governments and that the picture is a balanced one. But really the scale and extent of torture these days, it’s off the charts, from all regions of the world.

In a June 15 statement, you expressed alarm at reports that Russian forces are “consistently and intentionally” torturing Ukrainian civilians and prisoners of war. Do you think the torture is being conducted with the approval of Russian authorities?

What I assess — subject, of course, to further evaluation and verification — is that there’s such a consistency in the reasons for the torture being carried out: To extract strategic intelligence, or to force a confession so that more harm can be perpetrated on Ukrainian civilians and prisoners of war, or to simply intimidate the population so that they are compliant with the occupying forces in those areas. 

The practices that are being carried out are so consistent that my assessment is it has to be known. It has to be authorized tacitly or under instruction. As the war goes on, more and more of these allegations are emerging. 

That’s also a very worrying trend, because, at some point, we hope peace will prevail. These countries are neighbors and have so many cultural and social similarities and histories. 

But that all of this harm has been perpetrated against Ukrainian civilians and prisoners of war — there have also been reports of some cases of Ukrainian acts of torture against Russian prisoners — just makes peace that much harder. It makes future relations that much harder and for that reason, it really must stop. It’s really such a detrimental way to be conducting hostilities and, of course, is absolutely prohibited under the laws of war.

In August 2022, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published a report saying that “allegations of patterns of torture” in China’s Xinjiang province were credible. 

Do you think that the report will have made any difference to torture victims in the province, given that the Chinese government strongly rejected it?

I was among the independent experts who called for a session of the Human Rights Council to be dedicated to discussing the treatment of the Uyghurs and others in Xianjing province, and the positive [outcome] was that session happened. But to be quite honest, there’s been much silence since. 

I think what we still see is a crackdown on so-called illegal or criminal activities using counterterrorism legislation against activists, but also just ordinary people. I would encourage China to be more open, to allow visits by the special procedures as a follow-up to the former High Commissioner’s report. 

I’m interested in ensuring that, in the enforcement of the law, the Chinese authorities take a measured approach, that the responses are proportionate to the threat. China has made some progress in that they do have a criminal provision around torture, although it’s limited only to torture committed in the context of interrogation. 

They are taking — and they have for quite a number of years — training by the Norwegian police and others on forms of investigative interviewing that are humane and non-coercive. Under international law, it’s prohibited to force a confession and, of course, to force a confession by torture is even worse, but forms of false confession are prohibited. 

My general feeling at the UN system is that we’re currently at an impasse, and I would actually call also on all UN member states to make human rights part of the bilateral dialogues with China. 

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Do you have any concerns about reports of torture in India?

Since taking up the mandate, I have been involved in one allegation letter that we submitted to the Indian government: A Kashmiri human rights defender, who’s been arrested and detained under counter-terrorism legislation. 

In India, counter-terrorism legislation is really being used to criminalize human rights defenders, to control many legitimate activities, to restrict the freedoms of expression, dissent, and assembly, and that’s very worrying. 

Prior to my time, there were several submissions — in other words, allegation letters — around a range of issues, but quite a number of them around those same questions of political expression and the clampdown. Of those, there were no responses. The Indian government has not responded to the last eight allegation letters sent to it. 

India signed the Convention against Torture in 1997. For some time, there’s been a bill pending before parliament to allow the country to ratify the convention. That bill has kind of lapsed in time and been reinvigorated, but we’ve seen no progress yet. 

India is a member of the Human Rights Council, and as part of their campaign to become a member of the Human Rights Council, they pledged to ratify the Convention against Torture, and they haven’t done that yet. So I think that’s a really important symbolic step, but also then it should flow down into laws, procedures, and practices in the Indian state.

June 26 is the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. How would you advise Catholics, in particular, to mark this day?

I’m of the view that we should all take our roles as peacemakers very seriously, so to reach out to neighbors, colleagues, fellow workers, and others who one doesn’t normally speak to. Torture is allowed to fester quite often in a discrimination context where we don’t understand the other person’s side. 

The focus of my statement will be on preventing torture in the context of armed conflict. But of course, armed conflicts occur when societies are ill at ease with one another, where there is distrust, where there is discrimination, where there is xenophobia and other social ills. 

I would encourage all Catholics to reach out to one another, to check in on each other. And for those that are human rights advocates to raise their voices loudly and respectfully with their governments, and also to promote and highlight positive practices as well, to highlight changes, to show people what can happen when we have the right attitude and the right spirit.

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