By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights
Praxis is the intersection of theory and practice and, as we commemorate international human rights day, it is only fitting that we examine the praxis of human rights. How can we have laws – international laws, ratified by the vast majority of countries – outlawing discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity, laws requiring states and communities to take proactive steps to ensure that all children are safe and laws that ban torture, at the same time that young black boys are being beaten and shot by police with impunity? Or at the same time that reports are being released, nine months late, detailing the systemic targeting and torture of Muslim men by US government officials? Does the failure of implementation mean the promise of human rights is false?
It means that we must, once again, recognize that human rights are not above politics; human rights have always operated in a political arena. Sovereignty is not a license for abuse. What is unique about the human rights frame is that it ensures that no one is above the law. No head of state. No head of police. The issue is not to bemoan the politics but to work with the politics to ensure the human rights for all people are protected. This is especially true when it comes to ensuring that all people are safe from torture.
On December 10 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was signed in San Francisco by 48 countries with eight abstentions and none against. It was a declaration, an aspiration, it was not law. Between the Cold War hostilities and emerging independence movements there was no way that Soviet aligned and capitalist aligned countries could publically agree to mutually binding law. Real poltik would not permit this. What countries did agree to was a standard definition of what “human rights” means. It is from the UDHR that international human rights law covering a vast array of issues and people was born including the Convention Against Torture and other forms of Cruel and Degrading Treatment (CAT), which came into force in 1987.
But the Convention Against Torture (CAT) is unique. Whereas other human rights conventions and covenants seek to set standards for human rights compliance within the various social and political contexts – it is understood that a fair hearing or free education or protection of trade unions or birth control may look different in different cultures or political systems – the CAT does not allow for such nuances. The CAT defines torture not only on the basis of the abuse (i.e. “cruel inhumane and degrading treatment… for the purpose of extracting information from a person, or a third person…or based on discrimination of any kind”) but also on the identity of the abuser – is the person who committed the abuse an “agent of the state” (does he or she represent or work for the government)?
For an abuse to be considered torture the abuser must be an agent of the state or the abuse must have taken place with the acquiescence of a person who is an agent of the state through direct permission or a failure to intervene. What this means is that torture takes place at the hands of military officials, intelligence officers and police officers, among others. Such abuse by agents of the state is always illegal and if a government hears about such abuse it must take all measures to stop it and to bring the person to justice. Period.
Torture is an internationally recognized crime. Neither countries nor police forces can hide behind sovereignty. Nor can they hide behind security. Nor can they hide behind fear and all countries have the responsibility to act once they become aware that torture is taking place on their soil or that there is a torturer in their midst.
On this human rights day, let us aim to bring theory into practice. There is no excuse for torture. Whether it is torture in Ferguson, Missouri or Staten Island, New York or Cleveland, Ohio or Guantanamo Bay or Abu Grahib or many of the hundreds of undisclosed locations. Those who are in positions of power have the responsibility to not abuse that power and all of us have the responsibility to demand that human rights for all people are being protected.
There is power in language. And there is power in law. Police who abuse their power and cause physical and/or mental and/or emotional abuse for the purpose of extracting information or based on discrimination of any kind are committing torture. Intelligence officers or military officials who abuse their power and cause physical and/or mental and/or emotional abuse for the purpose of extracting information or based on discrimination of any kind are committing torture. If we aim to hold our governments accountable, human rights are always politics. Because it is the politics that often justifies the abuses, but also because politics – taking a public and active stand against police violence, torture and all human rights violations and working to create viable systems and structures – can provide the foundation for strengthening human rights for all people.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in 439 languages)