Expert Commentary: International Day in Support of Victims of Torture

The International Day in Support of Victims of Torture is taking place on Friday 26 June sponsored by the United Nations. On this date 26 years ago the international community committed to stamping out torture worldwide with the UN Convention against Torture coming into effect.

Since 1998, 26 June has become an occasion to commemorate the historic treaty, in which nations agreed to eradicate torture, investigate and punish perpetrators, and provide redress to victims.

Dr Emilie Combaz is an expert on the issue of torture and on the international fight against torture through activism, law and diplomacy. She is a political scientist with the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at The University of Manchester.

Dr Combaz said: “Notable positive developments have taken place over the past 40 years, although torture and ill-treatment remain widely practised around the world today. We now have good evidence on what works against torture at national and international levels. Good laws are important but not enough. It is also essential to have real accountability, independent control over places where people are deprived of freedom, and policies that ensure respect for human integrity.”

During her work Dr Combaz has shown how international bodies, for example at the UN, have condemned cases of torture, stopped some ongoing abuse, and contributed to preventing torture altogether in a range of countries on all continents.

She said: “Victims can rebuild themselves after torture. Under international human rights law, States have an obligation to provide redress and reparation to victims. Listening to victims’ experiences is also important to understand why torture is so widely practiced.”

Dr Katia Chornik, from the University’s Music Department, is the first music scholar to investigate the relationships between music and torture in Chile under Pinochet (1973-1990). She has conducted ethnographic work with both victims and perpetrators of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (CID) in some of the 1,132 centres for political detention established by the Pinochet regime.

Her research has revealed harrowing details of how Pinochet’s torturers used music to torment their victims. Dr Chornik said: “Pinochet’s system used music as a form and soundtrack to torture, to indoctrinate detainees and as a form of punishment.

“Tortured prisoners used music to cope with the reality of not knowing if they were going to live or die. Music brought prisoners together because it was a way to deal with their terrible suffering, to remember others who were executed or made disappear, and to record day-to-day living.”

Chile is one of several countries that have signed the UN Convention against Torture yet have still not updated their internal legislation in this respect. This, for Dr Chornik, is a major obstacle against the eradication of torture in Chile, including the use of music to inflict physical and psychological damage.

Dr Chornik has conceptualised, created and directed the online archive Cantos Cautivos [Captive Songs], of songs composed, performed and listened to in torture contexts in Chile. The project is a collaboration between Dr Chornik and the Chilean Museum of Memory and Human Rights, and can be accessed at www.cantoscautivos.cl (in Spanish only).

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