Despite impressive numbers of states signing up to treaties that prohibit human-rights abuses, torture and its attendant ills remain widespread. Side by side is a growing awareness that organized violence and the placing of people under severe mental or physical duress due to ill-treatment are extensions of what we consider to be torture.
The number of countries torturing their citizens increased last year. There was a staggering 46% increase in the number of countries where unfair trials have been reported.
Human-rights atrocities sparked by conflict occurred in East Timor, Chechnya, Colombia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kosovo and Sierra Leone.
Besides political dissenters and criminal suspects, people are often targeted for ill-treatment and torture on grounds of ethnic origin, social standing and sexual orientation.
Persecution (including torture and rape) against Tutsis by the Government and its supporters continues in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Roma communities were singled out in Kosovo, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. Kurds bore the brunt of Turkish torture.
Race continues to be the predominant factor determining police torture and killings in Europe and the US.
The most vulnerable – indigenous people, street children and migrant workers – continue to be targeted in Brazil, Colombia, Honduras and Mexico.
Women live in a state of torture in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, with their lives dictated by and in the hands of men. ‘Honour’ killings of women in Pakistan have escaped prosecution, with even victims of rape being killed for bringing ‘dishonour’. The killing of female relatives suspected of adultery has legal sanction in Jordan.
‘Disposables’ – ie homosexuals, prostitutes, petty criminals, drug dealers and vagrants – are targeted by death squads in Colombia.
In El Salvador last year gay men were beaten and killed by the police. No-one was prosecuted.
The former president of Ethiopia Mengistu Haile-Mariam was given shelter by Zimbabwe.
Congo and Niger passed laws granting amnesty to torturers.
Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Mauritania are most reluctant to punish human-rights abusers.
In the Americas
Impunity is rife in Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, Belize, Ecuador,
El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
In Colombia human-rights defenders and journalists fighting impunity are placed on death lists and many have had to seek refuge outside the country.
Legislative obstacles to fighting impunity exist in Chile (where Augusto Pinochet must now be tried), Argentina and Uruguay.
In the Asia Pacific region
China, Burma, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka head the impunity list.
Police officers involved in racially-motivated cases of abuse and deaths in custody continued to walk free.
In the Middle East
Impunity pervades the entire region, Saudi Arabia’s appalling human-rights record taking the lead.
In Algeria the impunity enjoyed by the army, security forces and paramilitary militias was extended to armed groups that surrendered and ‘repented’.
The known number of executions in 1999 was 1,813 in 31 countries. At least 3,857 people were under sentence of death in 63 countries. The true figures are certainly higher.
Overall, however, the numbers of executions and countries maintaining the death penalty are declining.
China killed the most people, with 1,077 deaths confirmed in 1999 and many more suspected. For the 1990s alone Amnesty International has recorded 18,000 executions in China – a figure believed to be far below the real one.
Iraq was responsible for hundreds of executions but many of these may have been extrajudicial. In per-capita terms Singapore has one of the highest rates of executions in the world.
Bermuda, East Timor, Nepal, Turkmenistan, Lithuania and Ukraine abolished the death penalty in 1999.
Torture isn’t confined to the police, armed forces and paramilitaries. Increasingly multinationals have been either supporting or actually perpetrating it in order to protect their interests in Majority World countries.
In Burma torture, rape and the use of slave labour has been reported in the construction of the Yetagun and Yadana natural-gas pipeline. Unocal (US) and Total (France) are the financial backers of the project, which is the country’s largest foreign investment. Unocal has hired the Burmese military as security guards.
Systematic beatings, rape and murder have been used to intimidate the Ijaw people of Southern Nigeria who have resisted operations of oil companies – Chevron, Shell, Agip, Exxon. The Nigerian military used a Chevron helicopter for one attack. Shell are also linked to abuses in Ogoniland.
In Aceh, Indonesia, the army has committed massacres in order to protect Mobil Oil and its partner PT Arun. The latter was responsible for building an interrogation centre that dealt with local uprisings.
In Sudan there have been numerous reports of rape, slavery, murder and repression around the oil fields in the South. Talisman Energy, a Canadian oil company, has made investments which it is claimed help the Government to continue its genocidal war. The Chinese National Petroleum Corporation has been accused of brokering arms deals with the Government for access to oil.
In 1996 British Petroleum struck a deal to train a Colombian army battalion through a British mercenary firm. The soldiers were entrusted with monitoring the construction of a pipeline to the Caribbean coast. An unpublished report commissioned by the Colombian Government alleges that BP provided intelligence about local protestors to the soldiers who were involved in abductions, torture and murder.
The Gallup International Millennium Survey3 polled people worldwide on whether the right not to be subjected to torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment was respected in their country.
When presented with a list of possible measures to stop torture, people voted most strongly against impunity for perpetrators.
1 All information, unless noted otherwise, is derived from Amnesty International, Report 2000, London, 2000, which covers human-rights abuses in 1999.
2 Information for this section provided by Project Underground. Their website, which contains numerous reports on corporate involvement in repression and torture is at http://www.moles.org/
3 The section of the Gallup International Millennium Survey that deals with attitudes to torture can be accessed at http://www.gallup-international.com/survey7.htm