30 years later, the stakes for combatting torture remain high

When the UN Convention Against Torture entered into force, it promised a future in which a global ban on torture would become a reality. Today, it represents three decades of a broken promise.

On December 10, 1984, the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. The Convention was ratified by the United States ten years later. Still, the unimaginable horrors of the torture chamber remain a reality for countless men, women and children around the world, and continue unchecked in the shadows of our own government.  In the past decade, Amnesty International has documented torture and other ill-treatment not only in U.S, jails and prisons, but also against “war on terror” detainees at Guantanamo and other detention sites.

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In short, we have let the unimaginably cruel become the mundane. Now, it is time to say “no more.”

That’s why Amnesty International has launched a global campaign to stop torture. In the United States, the “Stop Torture Campaign” will begin in our backyards, as we demand justice for the survivors of a police torture ring that operated from 1972-1991 in Chicago.

Darrell Cannon was tortured by three Chicago Police Department detectives at a remote site on Chicago’s South Side. Over the course of a day, they pressed a cattle prod to his testicles and put it into his mouth. The officers attempted to lift him off the ground by handcuffs secured behind his back, contorting his upper body. They repeatedly made him believe that they had loaded a shotgun and rammed in into his mouth, breaking his tooth. “These are all things they enjoyed doing," Darrell Cannon told Amnesty International, his voice cracking.

He spent 24 years in prison on the basis of a coerced confession that Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge’s men tortured out of him – ten of those years suffering further degradation in solitary confinement at Tamms Supermax prison.

Listening to Darrell’s story is beyond difficult. Watching a man’s face crumble as he returns to moments of unimaginable brutality in an empty corner of the city will leave you with a hard rock of rage and sadness in the pit of your stomach.

But listening to Darrell’s story is also critically important, because it is not unique. He is one of more than 100 men and women tortured under the direction of Burge between 1972 and 1991.

Sixteen torture survivors have since been exonerated and released; others served out decades in prison on the basis of coerced confessions. Today, at least 19 men are still behind bars, all of whom maintain that they confessed after being tortured, including being suffocated, electrocuted, beaten, burned, subject to mock execution or otherwise brutalized by Burge and his detectives. None of the survivors have ever received the reparations necessary to become physically, emotionally or mentally whole.

But it’s bigger than that. Because our human rights are inexorably bound with the rights of others, wherever they are in the world, we’re also campaigning for justice for torture survivors and systemic changes to prevent torture in Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, the Philippines and Uzbekistan. 

In the past five years alone, Amnesty International has reported on torture or other ill-treatment in at least three quarters of the world’s countries. In some, it is an isolated occurrence, but in most places torture is systemic and routine. A new global poll reveals that almost half of the world’s population still do not feel safe from torture.

In other words, the stakes for combatting torture are high. Torture erodes the rule of law and undermines criminal justice systems. It is an affront to our basic human dignity. As long as even one person is still under threat from torture, none of us can feel that our human rights are fully protected.

We must act now to establish safeguards and demand justice for torture survivors. We will not rest until everyone everywhere lives free from the fear of torture.

Heiss is a senior campaigner at Amnesty International USA.

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