Understanding the true costs of torture

Thursday, January 19, 2017

We were talking to an economist recently about our work and she said something both surprising and thought-provoking. “Torture is such a niche topic. It isn’t really that interesting to those outside your human rights world.”

Thinking later about her words, we came to realise two things:

First, that when we use the word “torture”, those in the human rights world and those outside it understand two different things. We use torture as a shorthand for the full range of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment that can take place in detention, from prison overcrowding, to overuse of solitary confinement and segregation, to the conditions of individual cells. Those outside our field, like our economist friend, think about what they see on television – on shows like 24 – bad guys in basements getting electrocuted. If that is your understanding of torture, then of course you think it is a niche topic, something to worry about in Guantanamo, perhaps, but not in Geneva or in the rest of Europe.

Second, we realized that to reach beyond our core audience we need another argument, to add to the moral, legal and practical arguments we make already. We need to emphasize the true cost to economies and to societies of criminal justice systems that don’t protect the most vulnerable and make all forms of torture and ill-treatment possible, whether you live in Davos or Dushanbe.

The economic costs of torture are enormous. Needless incarceration strains already stretched state budgets. This is true whether a person was convicted on the basis of a false confession, obtained through torture, or just held in pretrial detention because the courts are too backed up to process their case. The costs of lasting psychological damage to those who have been mistreated or spent time in solitary confinement are born by public health systems and by employers in terms of lost productivity. In places where victims have been able to seek redress, the cost to the criminal justice system can be huge.

And then we have the costs to society. Torture has a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable. It not only affects individuals but also their families and communities. Over time, torture also has a corrosive effect on the criminal justice system as a whole by undermining trust in law enforcement and in judicial processes. A process which, over time, makes it impossible for these institutions to function effectively.

These are some of the reasons why eliminating torture is included among the key challenges of the Sustainable Development Goals.

As politicians, economists, academics, members of civil society and opinion leaders meet in Davos, we call on those gathered to reconfirm our responsibility to reject all acts of torture.  Let’s leave Hollywood stereotypes of torture behind and recognize its real extent and cost. Let’s work together to make criminal justice systems work for everyone, including the most vulnerable. Let’s meet and prepare for Davos in 2018, to discuss the true cost of torture and agree on concrete steps towards prosperous and torture-free societies.

Image removed.Ben Buckland

Image removed.Romain Zappella