Today is the 20th Anniversary of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture: Will the Torture and the Impunity Ever Stop?


No free pass for torture: an image prepared by the ACLU.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.


June 26 is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, and today marks its 20th anniversary. When it first took place in 1998, the date was chosen because it is a particularly significant day in the field of human rights. Eleven years previously, on June 26, 1987, the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the UN Convention Against Torture), an enormous breakthrough in the global moral struggle against the use of torture, came into effect, and June 26 also marks the date in 1945 when the UN Charter, the founding document of the United Nations, was signed by 50 of the 51 original member countries (Poland signed it two months later).

The establishment of the UN and of key pledges regarding human rights has been a high point for the aspiration for a better world, which, of course, came about as a response to the horrors of the Second World War. After the UN was founded, the next major milestone in this quest was the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, and in 1950, in a similar vein, the newly formed Council of Europe established the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (originally known as the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms), which entered into force on September 3, 1953.

Unfortunately, although aspirations for a better world are profoundly worthwhile, they constantly jostle with the political realities of a world in which the thirst for power, paranoia, nationalism and capitalism seek to undermine them. Nevertheless, they constantly provide a benchmark for higher human ideals, and it is always reassuring when human rights are prominently observed.

Since the creation of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, however, there has been little opportunity to reflect on the success of the torture convention’s moral beacon. Just three years after it was declared by the UN, the US was attacked, on September 11, 2001, and responded by establishing a global program of torture and rendition, which, given America’s prominence on the world stage, has severely damaged the scope of human rights aspirations ever since.

The US has also, conspicuously, failed to hold any senior official to account for their role in implementing a torture program after 9/11. It is true that there has been some degree of commendable transparency — through the release, in December 2014, of the redacted 500-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s extraordinary 6,000-page report about the CIA’s torture program, which found it to be horribly brutal and not actually effective, but it has not led to any prosecutions.

Last summer, there was some measure of success when the two architects of the CIA’s torture program, former military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, settled out of court, for an undisclosed sum, with some of the victims of the CIA’s torture program (and the family of another man who died as a result of his torture by his US captors), but in the meantime, under Trump, a known torturer, Gina Haspel, who briefly ran the CIA’s first post-9/11 torture site in Thailand, in 2002, has been made the director of the CIA.


And at Guantánamo, meanwhile, the handful of men allegedly responsible for 9/11 and other attacks are stuck in a seemingly never-ending Groundhog Day of pre-trial hearings in the military commission trial system, a broken imitation of justice that cannot overcome the fact that those facing prosecution were tortured by the US, and torturing people (and then, to rub salt into their wounds, wanting them to keep quiet about it) is incompatible with justice. 

Moreover, as I recently marked 6,000 days of Guantánamo’s existence, via the Close Guantánamo campaign I established in 2012 with the US attorney Tom Wilner, it is also as relevant as it always has been that holding people for such a long time without charge or trial (6,000 days is 16 years and five months), and without them having any indication of when, if ever, they might be released, is also a form of torture. Rather disturbingly, I think, back in October 2003, Christophe Girod of the International Committee of the Red Cross voiced his concerns about the effects of open-ended imprisonment without charge or trial in an interview with the New York Times.

Girod said, during a Guantánamo visit, ”One cannot keep these detainees in this pattern, this situation, indefinitely,” adding, ’’The open-endedness of the situation and its impact on the mental health of the population has become a major problem.”

As the Times explained, “In 18 months, 21 detainees have made 32 suicide attempts, and human rights groups have said the high incidence of such events, as well as the number of detainees being treated for clinical depression, was a direct result of the uncertainties of their situations. Mr. Girod said that in meetings with members of his inspection teams, detainees regularly asked about what was going to happen to them. ‘’It’s always the No. 1 question,’ he said. ‘They don’t know about the future.’”

Nearly 15 years later, I cannot imagine how some of the men still held are managing to cope with their extraordinarily long imprisonment without charge or trial, and I fear that some of them have found themselves unable to cope. 

As we also recoil from Donald Trump’s treatment of children, separated from their parents at the Mexican border, and now held in open-ended detention, it’s worth reflecting that this kind of treatment is only possible because, behind everything, Guantánamo still lurks, normalizing open-ended imprisonment, and largely ignored or forgotten — or even supported — by the American people.

In the UK, too, the impact of torture continues to be felt. Recently, the government was finally obliged to apologize unreservedly to Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, Libyans who were kidnapped and rendered to torture in Libya by the CIA after a tip-off from Britain’s intelligence service, MI6, in 2004, but just last week six rights groups wrote to Theresa May warning her not to allow the US to redact two reports — ‘Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition: 2001-2010,’ and ‘Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition: Current Issues’ — prepared over the last five years by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), a group of MPs and peers that provides oversight of the UK’s intelligence agencies, which are expected to be published imminently. In addition, an all-party group of MPs and peers led by the former home secretary Ken Clarke have also written to Theresa May “demanding a judge-led inquiry into the Belhaj case and others in which the UK became involved in the rendition and torture of detainees”, as the Guardian described it.

Moreover, open-ended detention is not only a US problem, as the UK’s immigration detention system shows. As the Freedom from Torture website explains, “Every year, the UK Government detains around 30,000 people for immigration purposes,” and it is “the only European country to have no time limit on immigration detention.”

Worldwide, unfortunately, torture is not going away despite the best efforts of those who aspire to create a better world. On its dedicated page on torture, for example, Amnesty International notes that, over the last five years, it “has reported on torture in 141 countries — three-quarters of the world.”

Below is a joint statement — a call for action — to mark the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, issued by the UN Committee against Torture, the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, along with the Committee on the Prevention of Torture in Africa, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

“70 years on, torture is still widespread: more action needed to achieve a torture-free world for all”

Seven decades ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first international text prohibiting torture in absolute terms. Its fifth article, approved by unanimous support, unequivocally stipulates, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

Since then, with the mobilization of the human rights movement, the international community has made remarkable progress towards the eradication of torture. The ban on torture and other ill treatment has been incorporated into an extensive network of international and regional human rights treaties. The prohibition of torture has since been elevated to jus cogens, thus recognizing that it is so fundamental that it supersedes all treaties and customary laws.

The United Nations Convention against Torture, adopted by the General Assembly in 1984 and ratified to date by 163 States, is the most comprehensive instrument in international law to prohibit torture under any circumstances. The principles it contains remain highly relevant today: torture is a crime. It is never allowed nor justified, not even during an emergency, political instability, threat of war or even a state of war. States have an obligation to take effective measures to prevent acts of torture in any territories under their jurisdiction. Those who commit acts of torture should be prosecuted anywhere. In addition, victims of torture have a right to rehabilitation and redress.

Over the past 70 years, the use of torture has been criminalised in a myriad of national legislations and accountability for the acts of torture has been incorporated in many penal codes. We have come a long way to accept the universality of jurisdiction over acts of torture irrespective of where or by whom they were committed. We have seen an expansion of the definition of torture through jurisprudence, increasing the threshold of protection under national and international law. In order to prevent torture and other ill-treatment, a system of regular visits by independent international and national mechanisms to places where people are deprived of their liberty has been established. Preventive mechanisms have also been established at the regional level.

However, the promise has not been kept for all. Torture continues and the existence of so many surviving victims of torture, many of whom are unacknowledged and unsupported, is a dramatic testimony to the persistence of torture worldwide. Impunity remains high; so- called evidence obtained under torture is in many countries still admitted in court; increasingly, torture practices are being acquiesced to under ‘certain circumstances’, especially in the context of the fight against terrorism; and far too many human rights defenders face daily life threats and reprisals for fighting impunity and for their noble work in support of victims.

Today, on the occasion of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, all anti-torture mechanisms of the United Nations and regional mechanisms from Africa, Europe and the Americas stand together to reiterate that torture can never be justified, not even as a measure of last resort. They call with one voice for all acts of torture to be effectively prosecuted and for more action to be taken to prevent such acts from occurring again.

Today, the undersigned stand in solidarity with the thousands of victims of torture and their families, recalling that victims have under international law an enforceable right to effective remedy, including redress and rehabilitation.

While we commemorate the unequivocal promise for collective prosperity enshrined 70 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the undersigned call on all States to renew efforts to make that promise a reality: a torture-free world for all.

The United Nations Committee against Torture
The United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture
The United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture
jointly with
The Committee on the Prevention of Torture in Africa
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

23 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, marking the 20th anniversary – today, June 26 – of the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, which, in turn, was set up to mark the day the UN Convention Against Torture came into force (in 1987), as well as the day the UN Charter was first signed back in 1945.
    Unfortunately, torture has not gone away. In the last five years, Amnesty International has reported on its use by 141 countries – three-quarters of the world – and, of course, the US has led the way in normalizing it since 9/11, failing to hold anyone senior officials to account for its use, and, under Donald Trump, promoting a torturer to the role of director of the CIA.
    I also report on how endless imprisonment without charge or trial at Guantanamo is itself a form of torture, and look at the UK’s failure to properly investigate its use of torture, as well as criticizing both the US and the UK for their open-ended immigration detention programs, which are also a form of torture – and which, of course, Trump is currently undertaking in relation to the Mexican border, separating children from their parents, to the dismay of all decent Americans.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    if you haven’t heard it, do check out my band The Four Fathers’ song about the torture program:

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    After my friend Neil McKenna shared this, I wrote:

    You’re welcome, Neil. In the roll call of important anniversaries, I also remember:
    Jan. 11: Guantanamo opens
    Feb. 9: Bush issues memo removing Geneva Convention protections from Guantanamo prisoners
    Mar. 28: Abu Zubaydah captured, 2002
    Jun. 9/10: three deaths at Guantanamo, 2006
    Aug 1: Yoo/Bybee torture memos issued, 2002
    Dec. 9: Senate Torture Report executive summary issued, 2014
    Dec. 10: Human Rights Day

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    And yet the US just put a torturer in charge of the CIA. Her actions would have earned her 15 years in the war trials after WW2 where waterboarding by the Japanese was defined as torture and obeying orders outlawed as an excuse.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    A damning sign of how far our moral compass has drifted, David.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    And approved by any number of Democrats to boot, Andy.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Oh yes, those craven Democrats, David. Their general silence since Trump took over has been really quite shocking.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Bernard Sullivan wrote:

    Do you know how hard it is to put this and subjects like this on the back burner? A day never goes by without us learning of some new atrocity, inflicted by man upon man, or by man upon animals. It is a never ending heart-wrenching nightmare. Our daily life is consumed with such stories of horror. To turn a blind eye is tantamount to being complicit. To be aware, and to act is a duty that behoves us all, but to do so is to place the inhumanity of the world upon our own shoulders. It is so hard, but when your life is short, the time to try is so important.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    I hear you, Bernard. The sad thing is that if every took some of that weight upon themselves, it would actually provide the impetus, the moral weight to make the world a better place. There is some considerable truth to that saying about how, to paraphrase, all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    The US and it’s One Party system … Unfortunately, we in the States have difficulty actually seeing the big picture. Party over Policy has been the way of this mess here. We have to stop playing the game of voting “lessor of two evils” and start pushing for a serious alternative … Haven’t gotten too far with that since both parties here have assured that any 3rd party is relegated to the margins currently.
    We US citizens are a hoodwinked lot who refuse to accept the reality that we are no “great shakes” – we are not exceptional. If we understand that premise of being no better or worse than any other being … we would be able to actually get a glimmer of the “big picture” … And that includes paying attention to our effect on the rest of the planet as being as important as policy towards the “homeland.”

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jan. Yes, that American exceptionalism certainly skews clear-headedness, as I know from being British, where many people cling to our former self-declared exceptionalism, with similarly deluded results. Unfortunately, everywhere now, it seems, democracy is failing us, as parties that represent only the corporate world lie to us incessantly, and treat us like idiots, and too many people allow them to get away with it.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Sanchez Montebello wrote:

    Only a global revolution, an event on a scale as massive as the “Pearl Harbor-Like Event” which originated this madness, will ever change any of this, now. Millions and millions of people are dead, millions of others have been torn from their own homelands and live as refugees in squalor or thousands of miles from their homes. Others are innocent victims brutalized by religious zealots and war lords all being propped-up as proxy soldiers for the CIA and U.S. Pentagon. Millions-more are starving to death in civil wars being fought on their own lands. This is horrific. I can’t stop shaking my head and the massive human devastation.
    All this, thanks to lies, fake wars and false flags designed to empower and enrich the Elite with all their schemes to remove and beat down the human rights of the masses at the cost of demonizing, imprisoning and TORTURING victims as the causes and excuses for War, Empire and Conquest. Their massive war crimes go uncontested. Their Corporate State-run Media Lapdogs celebrate each dropping bomb while ignoring the causes for such massive amounts of refugees that flood other countries (who did NOTHING to start these useless Empire wars).
    Day-after-day-after-day-after-day, you see dozens of reasons why the leaders of our countries should be arrested and held for trial as war criminals, but day-after-day-after-day, nothing is ever done. I honestly don’t know what this world-wide massive global event would be which will change the direction of humanity. It would be obvious to any sane and caring person that our leaders are all criminals and puppets of the Deep Establishment, and that demands for Human Rights and Justice are basic fundamentals that any global citizen should HAVE.
    But… Even “THAT” is asking for too much. I can’t stop shaking my head.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    I know what you mean, Sanchez. As soon as you step back and take an overview, it’s clear that all manner of things are only getting worse, and yet people in general behave as though that’s not the case because the habit of questioning things has been lost, or people know things are wrong, but are just too beaten down or distracted to do anything about it.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    UN documents should be adapted by now.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    You mean to reflect how so much has changed, Aleksey? How so many countries are evading their responsibilities?

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    Yes, we need more severe sanctions for violations.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    We certainly do, Aleksey, but what can we do when there’s no mechanism for enforcement? I greatly admire the UN’s creation of human rights rapporteurs and their efforts to expose the truth, through country visits and reports, for example, but they’ve essentially always been the UN’s conscience, whereas its power structure has been the permanent members of the security council who set it up in the first place.
    After 9/11, and America’s overt remaking of itself as a torture nation, the extent of the UN’s powerlessness was revealed, and now, under Trump, it’s even worse. Withdrawing from the Human Rights Council because of perceived bias against Israel is a particularly damning move by the US. For some people, that will only show more than ever the UN’s powerlessness, but to my mind it more significantly shows how the US is bent on affirming itself, under Trump, as a deeply unpleasant rogue nation with contempt for most other countries.
    Brookings analysis here:

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    This situation will continue until the countries of the European Union understand the danger of all this.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    The European mechanisms have more bite, Aleksey – think how the European Court of Human Rights has delivered damning rulings about Poland, Romania and Lithuania for hosting CIA “black sites”, and the case with Macedonia and poor Khaled el-Masri, a case of mistaken identity. And there have also been financial sanctions – not huge, but better than just a slapped wrist.
    The biggest threat to EU solidarity right now is the UK, not just because of Brexit, but because of Theresa May’s disgusting enthusiasm for removing us from the EU’s human rights legislation. That won’t be as easy as the right-wingers make out, because it’s not an EU matter; it’s actually to do with membership of the Council of Europe, which the UK helped establish, but it signifies a contempt for human rights legislation that is genuinely alarming, and that is undoubtedly resonating throughout the EU.
    And, of course, most other EU countries are also struggling with far-right movements, who can sweet talk when they seek power, but who would be human rights abusers if they actually got power.
    My latest on the ECtHR rulings here:
    And a 2015 article about the Tories and human rights:

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    Andy, a glimmer of hope….
    ‘A 28-year-old Democratic Socialist just ousted a powerful, 10-term congressman in New York’

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Jan. I was just alerted to that. Perhaps more than a glimmer of hope. With Trump so clearly representing old white racists, there’s very obviously an opportunity for the young and everyone who’s not white to embrace a radical alternative. In the UK, sadly, people don’t see how much Theresa May is an old white racist like Trump, and we don’t have enough of an immigrant narrative to really get behind young, non-white people as voices for the future. It’s happening culturally, to some extent, and it’s definitely present in the fallout from Grenfell, where a new community, galvanised by trauma, is speaking truth to power with a compelling voice, but we lack the huge monstrousness of Trump as a clear target for unflagging resistance. Congratulations to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez!

  22. Tom says...

    Re: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Now actual progressives of color are winning. This means that the neo liberal Democrats are scared to death.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I hope so, and they deserve to be. Tom. This is a good result. In the face of Trump, we need young people, people of color, women, to successfully oppose this official old white racist presidency.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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