The Night Watchman

Fifty years after the declaration of human rights, Cole Moreton meets the professor who documents torture for the United Nations
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The Independent Culture
Brahim Abdullatif was arrested at home in Algeria in January 1997 and taken to a local police station. At night he was allegedly left hanging from a tree by his tied hands. During interrogation he was burned with an iron and had his legs bound by electrically charged wires. As a result, he is said to have become deaf and partially blind.

(From United Nations document E/CN.4/1998/38)

EVERY YEAR, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights publi-shes a long report documenting hundreds of alleged torture cases from around the world. These are listed alphabetically and dispassionately. Algerian security forces, for example, like to elicit information by using "chiffon", which involves stuffing a rag into the victim's mouth, tying him to a bench and pouring large quantities of toxic water on to his face. In Yemen they prefer "Kentucky Farruj", in which the hands and knees are tied together and a metal bar pushed between them so that the victim can be suspended from the ceiling.

Reading through the first few pages of last year's report, I was appalled by each individual story. Then the scale of the atrocity - the huge number of beatings, drownings, hangings and rapes - began to overwhelm me. The eye, inured to details of name, age and place, instinctively searches for the unusual. Incidents involving cattle prods and insecticide spray stand out.

It makes compelling but uncomfortable reading, and one's instincts are to close the report and turn away. We all know there is suffering in the world; we just don't want to think about it all the time.

But some people have no choice. Professor Nigel Rodley is one. Since his appointment as the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture in 1993, he has been responsible for compiling the report, for recording the hidden crimes. Before we met, he sent me an account of his work that had appeared in a human rights journal. After all the usual UN jargon about working groups and mandates, the very last sentence stood out. Keeping perspective was hard, he said, when "one knows that, as one is talking, writing or sleeping, people are being tortured all over the world".

Jane Wanbui was five months pregnant when police officers in Kenya kicked her repeatedly in the stomach, it is claimed, causing a miscarriage. Virginia Nyamburu Wanbui, a 17-year-old arrested at the same time, was hospitalised after allegedly being whipped, kicked, and beaten with sticks and having salt put into her vagina.

Rain was falling on the bleak concrete blocks that form the Essex University campus. "Torture is easy to hide," said Professor Rodley as we walked along a neon-lit corridor to his study. "It takes place in the dark and secret reaches of state power. It is not done in public. Normally the preconditions are incommunicado detention - people being detained in circumstances where nobody from the outside can see what is going on. No family, no doctors, no lawyers. The victims are at the mercy of their captors. It is easy to deny."

A small, trim man in his late fifties, Rodley was wearing the academic's standard-issue corduroy jacket, with a striped shirt and floral tie. The rich voice might have been sinister had it not been accompanied by charming manners. He is, after all, a diplomat as well as a lawyer and an academic, used to dealing with heads of state and chiefs of police. The job of Special Rapporteur takes him away from the university for up to four months a year, to UN offices in Geneva and New York, and to countries where torture is alleged to take place.

Rodley's task is to investigate violations of the 1987 UN convention, which defined torture as unlawful physical or mental pain intended to punish, intimidate or force a confession. He becomes involved in a case when the victim's friends, family or supporters appeal to the UN for help, often through Amnesty International. If the allegations are plausible and urgent, the office of the Special Rapporteur responds within 24 hours, by faxing the Foreign Minister of the country concerned to ask for more information. "It's an expression of fear that somebody is at risk," he says. "The most important aspect is not so much what is actually said on paper as the fact of the intervention itself."

As a weapon against tyranny, a fax from the UN is hardly a Cruise missile, so why should a government take any notice? "The UN is the club of governments. Hopefully what they're scared of - if they're scared at all - is the inconvenience of being seen as not complying with the standards that their own club has done so much to advance. Military governments don't cede power because of faxes from the UN, but they do lose some self-confidence - and other forces can gain confidence. This can lead to a situation in which some really nasty regimes implode."

Very few governments dare to ignore his questions altogether. Some deny all allegations, others admit that a suspect has been taken in for questioning but insist he or she is safe - which is usually true, at least while the UN is watching. Less urgent cases are documented and presented to a government for its response, and the results are published as part of Rodley's annual report to the Commission for Human Rights.

Collectively, Rodley said, such accusations could be damning in the eyes of the international community. But wasn't he just shuffling paper around in the face of misery?

"Yes," he acknowledged. "It's just that it's paper that wasn't shuffled before. We don't yet have - I'm not sure that your readers would want to see in place - an international system with a police force which could walk into any state and take over the government because others felt it was misbehaving." The creation of an international human rights court had been approved in principle, but it would take time to implement. "Short of that, all you can do is shuffle paper."

Police in Pakistan allegedly beat unconscious Javed Masih, a Christian, after arresting him in August 1995. He died two days later, apparently from the effects of torture said to have included electric shocks, broken teeth and bottles containing red chillies and kerosene inserted into his anus. The police officers concerned have reportedly been acquitted and returned to work.

"Occasionally we will get a story that will suggest one has saved somebody," said Rodley. His flat tone suggested a desire to distance himself from the subject. "I was told by a student here that a brother of his was detained in a military zone in northern Uganda, in circumstances where people didn't reappear. I did an intervention and the guy did reappear. He got out. A few months later he was killed by the other side. Depressing." This was the first time Rodley had strayed from the impersonal language of the UN diplomat. He must, I suggested, feel a connection with some of the victims?

"You develop a kind of medical approach. Doctors have to do it all the time. If you start showing an emotional identification it may cloud your judgement. Doing the job professionally means being clinical, dispassionate ... and also developing the same kind of black humour as doctors do, as a form of self-protection."

Even doctors have feelings. Professors too, it seems, when the files are closed and the tie folded away. "It's odd. Sometimes I find myself emoting to a story of torture when I'm in my living room, watching it being told on television. My defences aren't up. I'm in a much more passive posture. Then it hits me, as it would hit anyone else."

Except that he knows the context. The story of one individual's suffering at the hands of torturers might move anyone, but few of us would watch it and involuntarily think of a dozen other similar cases happening around the world.

"Sure. That's right. That's true."

How does he deal with that? "I suppose the first thing, actually, is feel relieved that I haven't become too inured to it to react emotionally. It kind of reminds me why I'm doing what I'm doing. It also gives you a further jolt of energy, to put a bit more effort into it. Look, there is a lot of suffering. This is a particularly nasty form of it, in that it's so voluntarist - people can only do this if they have dehumanised themselves or those they are doing it to. But nobody thinks about all the suffering in the world all the time. They can't. They concentrate on a piece of it. I have been known to decide to watch a police thriller rather than a human rights documentary on television."

The torture victims he deals with every day are usually names on documents, not people sitting in the room with him. "I have built up defences not to concentrate too much on the reality of what has happened to the individual."

Such defences are useless when he goes on a mission. Sometimes the stories coming out of a country are so troubling that the Special Rapporteur asks for an invitation to visit and inspect for himself. Once there, he talks to ministers, civil servants, police chiefs, prison governors and finally to the alleged victims themselves. "The closer one comes to the agencies most responsible for the allegations, the less open the responses tend to be. We're talking about violations of their own criminal law. They're not about to admit it easily."

When he visited one prison in Asia, he was warned to look out for the fetter irons which were said to be used to secure the wrists and ankles of prisoners. No such irons were visible on the day, but the Special Rapporteur demanded to see the prison log book. The governor promptly confessed that 200 pairs of fetters had been removed the previous evening.

The victims are interviewed at the UN offices or in prison. "You've got to get them to overcome God knows what kind of fear and repression. All you are is another suit, parachuted down from nowhere, having to speak to them through an interpreter, trying to reach them in a way that will elicit the information and also permit you to keep that sceptical side of your brain going."

Missions leave him exhausted, but leaving is the hardest part. "You can't offer them [the victims] a hell of a lot. You can't offer them compensation, you can't offer them a criminal procedure against their tormentors. You can't even offer them an apology, which some people would settle for."

The week before we met he had been in Turkey. Were the horror stories he had heard there still in his mind? There was a silence.

"Of course."

A 15-year-old girl called Remziye Karakoc was arrested in Turkey in 1996. While under interrogation she was allegedly stripped and hosed with pressurised water, given electric shocks on her fingers and tied around the abdomen with a rubber hose, which was pulled tight as she was beaten on the belly and kidneys. The Turkish government said a medical report had established that she was not tortured.

The history of Nigel Rodley's own family could have been a UN case study. His grandparents were killed in a Nazi concentration camp in Minsk; his father, Hans Israel Rosenfeld, left Germany as a refugee in 1938 and came to England, changing his name when he joined the paratroop regiment. Rodley was only three when his father was killed in combat.

Young Nigel went to boarding school in Bristol but returned to study law at Leeds University. Afterwards, he transferred to Columbia University, in New York, to complete a masters degree in international law, a subject still dominated at the time by the Nuremberg trials. As a student lawyer he played an active part in anti-Vietnam demonstrations.

"I remember people who would go and join the Weathermen underground movement on the grounds that they had gone on a demonstration in Washington and the Vietnam war hadn't stopped. I was part of those demos, but I didn't think that was sufficient reason to decide to throw bombs instead. I guess I brought that experience with me to human rights work."

He returned to England just as Amnesty International was looking for its first full-time lawyer. Mr Rodley served the organisation for 17 years, during which time it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and played a leading part in the creation of new international laws.

Amnesty was determined to be politically neutral (which made it relatively easy for Rodley to move to the UN later). It did not demand that America pull out of Vietnam; later it did not recognise Nelson Mandela as a prisoner of conscience, because he would not renounce violence. There was, how- ever, one issue which caused the Amnesty leadership to waver in the Seventies - the military coup in Chile led by General Pinochet, which was announced during Rodley's first international conference in Vienna in 1973.

"It hit the meeting like a thunderbolt, and had a searing effect on everyone. We kept a two-minute silence, which was not the sort of thing Amnesty usually did."

As Rodley drove me to Colchester station in his Rover, the latest news about Pinochet was announced over the radio. He was pleased. "I'd like to say it was simply revulsion against a dictator and pleasure at his finally beginning to get his come-uppance, but there is a certain amount of professional pleasure as well. I have been arguing since the Eighties that international law did allow for universal jurisdiction over murderers, torturers and abductors."

When I asked Rodley how he thought the Pinochet case could be best resolved, he replied thus: "It would be personally satisfying if at some point he felt compelled to say he was sorry, and compelled to tell the victims of the disappearances where their loved ones' bodies are."