On 3 April 2013, after 17 years Jigme Gyatso was released from prison. He entered prison a strong and healthy 35 year-old and left with weak eyesight, heart complications and kidney damage that kept him from walking upright. Eight years before his release Jigme Gyatso met the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, who strongly recommended Jigme Gyatso be released because his conviction for “endangering state security” by creating an illegal organization was based on information extracted by torture. During his 17 years imprisonment, he was electrocuted with electric batons and brutally beaten. Today, three months after Jigme Gyatso’s long-awaited release from prison, is the International Day in Support of Torture Victims as Jigme Gyatso struggles with his broken body to live again.
International Day in Support of Torture Victims commemorates the entry into force of the Convention Against Torture, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment (or Convention Against Torture) on 26 June 1987 with the goal of eradicating torture.
No act, except for slavery, has been prohibited as unanimously and repeatedly as torture. The international community recognizes that the prohibition of torture, like genocide and slavery, is a jus cogens norm, a preemptory norm of international law from which no derogation is permitted. The universal rejection of torture forces torturers to deny its existence and hide their victims from the world by placing them in “black sites” and secret detention facilities or denying their existence.
China, as a state party to Convention Against Torture, is obliged to prevent torture and punish torturers. China’s implementation of the Convention Against Torture is superficial and torture remains unchecked. Article 2 of the Convention Against Torture requires that all states take effective measures to prevent torture. This includes not only having laws that prohibit torture but also ensuring that the laws effectively prevent torture. Chinese laws do not prevent torture.
The Convention Against Torture contains optional provisions designed to help states eliminate torture. The Committee against Torture works with states to investigate allegations of torture (Article 20). With a state’s consent, the Committee against Torture may also hear allegations of torture from other states (Article 21) and individuals (Article 22). States can accept visits, advice, and assistance from the Sub-committee on the Prevention of Torture by acceding to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture that created the sub-committee.
China has to categorically rejected any mechanism in the Convention Against Torture that would facilitate international cooperation on preventing torture. China refuses to work with or even recognize the competence of the Committee against Torture. This rejection includes the optional measures related to the Committee against Torture. China refused to agree to the expansion on the Committee against Torture (Articles 21 and 22) and refused to work with the Sub-committee on Prevention. This is a total refusal to work with the international community to eradicate torture in China. Instead, China offers denials and vague promises. The value of China’s promises is indelibly written on the bodies and seared into the minds of its torture victims.
Beyond the definition in the Convention Against Torture, torture is the brutal and barbaric assertion of the state’s raw, unrestrained power. In the torture chamber, the victims are completely helpless and the state exploits this helplessness to humiliate and dehumanize them.
In Tibet, this brutal attack on helpless victims is frequent. Chinese military and paramilitary forces in Tibet “disappear” Tibetans who demand freedom and human rights. They are taken to secret detention facilities and hidden from their family, friends and human rights monitors. Family and friends are detained for simply trying to learn more than they are told.
Jigme Gyatso’s mistreatment during interrogation and detention is not unique. Routinely, Tibetans are beaten with rifles and electric batons. They are kept awake for days on end. Their back, limbs, mouths, and genitals are electrocuted. They are shackled and suspended upside down from the ceiling. They are hung from the ceiling by their hands. Their joints swell and become extremely sensitive to subsequent beatings. They are kept in solitary confinement for months. For days they are hogtied to the “Tiger Chair,” a chair that makes it impossible to move their arms or legs. For weeks, they are shackled naked to the “Death Bed” unable to move. They are held in solitary confinement for months.
After detention, Tibetans are left battered, bruised and broken. The tiger bench leaves their entire body covered with bruises. The death bed causes their muscles to atrophy. Suspending them from the ceiling dislocates their joints and breaks bones. The beatings and electrocutions cause permanent damage or loss of their kidneys. The lack of medical care exposes the victims to communicable diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis. Many simply do not survive.
For the living, the psychological impact of torture is debilitating. This is the goal of torture. The brutal infliction of pain cripples the mind and crushes the spirit. Torture makes its victims too terrified to think or hope. The barbaric demonstration of China’s brutality has left Tibetans broken and unbalanced.
The brutality of the Chinese government has not diminished the determination of Tibetans to fight for their human rights. After two years in prison, Jigme Gyatso joined a prison protest against Chinese authorities. In the subsequent crackdown, 8 prisoners died and at least 27 had their sentences increased. Six years later, Jigme Gyatso and his fellow prisoners again stood up to their torturers and shouted slogans in supporting His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They were beaten and left bloodied but unbowed.
The barbaric and brutal Chinese response to the Tibetan non-violent movement demonstrates China’s weakness, not its strength. When the whisper of human rights or a photo of the Dalai Lama results in torture, the weakness of the Chinese in Tibet is exposed.
Today on the International Day in Support of Torture Victims, the international community must send a message that even though torture victims like Jigme Gyatso may be electrocuted, shackled, and beaten in secret confinement, they are not forgotten.
The eradication of torture is the goal of the Convention Against Torture and International Day in Support of Torture Victims. More importantly, it is what the torture of Jigme Gyatso and other victims demands. To eradicate torture in China, the international community must pressure China, both independently and at its upcoming Universal Periodic Review in October at the UN, to meet its international obligations and abolish torture in all its forms, abolish extra-judicial detention, close its black sites, and allow international observers to ensure that torture has truly been abolished in Tibet and throughout the People’s Republic of China.