Populist leaders are taking us backwards in the fight against torture

Britain once led the way in establishing the torture prohibition, but we're now shirking the same obligations that we helped create.

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The rise of authoritarian populism across the world is taking us backwards in the fight against torture. Despite a global prohibition on the practice, survivors from 70 countries were referred to Freedom from Torture for psychological care or forensic medical reports last year. The time when we could rely upon democratic constraints to oppose this practice is fading fast; torture proponents are taking office in liberal democracies like Brazil, the Philippines and the United States. As pro-torture politicians like Donald Trump topple incumbents elsewhere across the world, there is a growing risk that torture becomes a tolerated means of political control and repression.

Last month, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President of Sri Lanka, Asia’s oldest democracy, despite a well-publicised lawsuit in the United States accusing him of responsibility for numerous incidents of torture while serving as Sri Lanka’s secretary of defence. The former wartime defence chief’s strongman image was central to his campaign. There are already signs of Rajapaska’s appetite for repression; a Swiss Embassy employee was abducted and asked about asylum applications, and investigators were banned from leaving, just days after his election.

In the US, meanwhile, President Trump has been a strident supporter of torture. As well as pardoning convicted American war criminals, he is pushing for Marshall Billingslea, a vigorous advocate of the CIA’s torture programme after 9/11, to be the next undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights. Rather than prosecuting former intelligence officer Gina Haspel for her alleged oversight of torture at a “black site” in Thailand, Trump made her director of the CIA in 2018.

These actions of democratically elected leaders legitimise torture and give the green light to its proponents. Survivors of torture we work with are emphatic that the actions of Trump and his ilk engender the practice across the world. Here in the UK, for example, our government continues to block the truth about British complicity in CIA torture. A parliamentary investigation into the UK’s role in the post-9/11 programme of torture and rendition was abandoned because of government obstruction. And the Conservative government is currently proposing new laws that would create impunity for British soldiers accused of torture and other war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Britain once led the way in establishing the torture prohibition; first, through our common law, established from the thirteenth century onwards, and later at the global level – including as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. We’re now shirking the same global obligations that we once helped create.

The actions – or inactions – of political leaders shape the attitudes of the electorate. As countries like the US and UK waver in their compliance with the torture ban, public support for the ban weakens. New polling conducted by Freedom from Torture reveals that 43 per cent of people in the UK are unsure whether torture is always wrong, including 29 per cent who believe it is acceptable in some circumstances. Moreover, support for torture in Britain is highest among younger people.

As populist leaders continue to break through, we witness a wider erosion of public support for democratic checks, balances and institutions once thought inviolable. According to research from Hansard, more than half the UK population (54 per cent) now say that Britain needs a strong leader who is “willing to break the rules”. Trends including an increase in hate crimes and extremist views could be the catalyst for wider tolerance for torture.

Our polling finds that the majority of the UK’s population oppose torture in any circumstance. But their voices are drowned while a more vocal minority push for the dismantling of hard-fought rights and protections. Chief Conservative strategist Dominic Cummings has already warned that after Brexit, “we’ll be coming for the ECHR… and we’ll win by more than 52-48”.

In our heated and politically fractious climate, we must urgently remake the case against torture and help people understand the enduring harm it has on individuals and communities. We have an obligation to defend, uphold and promote the torture ban, and deliver justice for Britain’s failings. It is the litmus test of a fair, decent and tolerant society.

Sonya Sceats is chief executive of the charity Freedom from Torture.