Missing torture amongst the poor

Torture has been one of the dominant international human rights issues of the last fifteen years. Yet, the vast majority of incidents of torture have remained undocumented. This is perhaps inevitable, as torture is very hard to document. States invest considerable resources into hiding torture from view and denying that it takes place at all. Victims can also be too afraid to come forward, human rights organizations have limited resources. But the biggest documentation gap when it comes to torture and ill treatment, is among the poor—particularly across the Global South—who are often left out of the equation entirely.

Research we have been carrying out with local partners in Kenya, Nepal and Bangladesh suggests that international—and to a lesser extent domestic—human rights organizations can significantly under perceive the extent of torture and ill-treatment against the poor. There are five key dispositions that have lead to these blind spots. First, torture is treated as an extraordinary event, fundamentally different from more mundane and everyday encounters with public officials. This can leave to one side the “mundane” and “everyday” nature of much of the torture experienced by the poor. We are thinking here, for example, about informal traders, sex workers, street children, or ghetto youth who are perceived to be legitimate targets of disciplinary, extortionist or just arbitrary violence. These marginalized groups are routinely stopped by the police, threatened, and severely beaten. The violence rarely takes place in police cells or prison, but more often than not in the street, in the back of a van, or in their own homes. For many of the poorest residents of Kathmandu, Dhaka and Nairobi, and many other places in the world, their everyday interactions with public officials can be marked by violence and coercion.

Flickr/uusc4all (Some rights reserved)

A street vendor in Nairobi, Kenya. It is often informal traders, sex workers, street children, or ghetto youth who are the targets of disciplinary, extortionist or arbitrary violence and torture.

Torture survivors are easiest to document if they fit into a series of basic assumptions about what it means to be a “good victim”.

The second predisposition is that documentation focuses on places of detention rather than the “street”, missing other forms of violence that mark the interaction between the poor and public officials. Third, there is a predisposition towards prosecution and reparations, where it is often assumed that the goal of documentation should be legal accountability. In their everyday practice, if not in aspiration, the poor often prioritize protection above accountability, leading to the danger that survivors who do not seek legal accountability will be missed or ignored. Fourth, torture survivors are easiest to document if they fit into a series of basic assumptions about what it means to be a “good victim”. Widespread prejudices against some of the livelihood strategies of the poor, such as street hawking or sex work, can mean they do not often meet expectations of “good victimhood”. Fifth, and finally, these blind spots can be particularly hard to overcome as limitations in institutional capacity mean that human rights groups are often geographically and socially distant from low-income neighborhoods.

These five predispositions can be present in the documentation of torture and ill treatment amongst all populations. However, it is their interlocking combination that results in particularly acute forms of under-perception when it comes to the experience of the poor. The predispositions are not present in the same intensity at all times and in all places. But, crucially, these tendencies become increasingly intense as you move from the street, to national human rights organizations, and on to regional and international mechanisms. At an individual level many human rights practitioners are aware of the gaps, but the institutional structures and incentives of human rights practice can make them hard to overcome.

We are not arguing that torture and ill treatment need to be redefined in order to cover more of the experiences of the poor. Indeed, many of the types of violence missed by dominant forms of human rights documentation fit within the internationally recognized definitions. Rather, we are arguing that existing definitions can be applied to a greater range of places and experiences, capturing violations against large numbers of under-recognized victims.

It may well be that human rights organizations—both local and international—are relatively content to work within the predispositions we have outlined. They cannot cover everything and everywhere, and there are perfectly good reasons to focus on places of detention, on “virtuous” victims, and on legal accountability, amongst others things.  However, it is also important to recognize that such decisions will mean that the incidence of torture and ill treatment amongst the poor will remain significantly under perceived.   

If human rights organizations do want to respond to the forms of torture and ill treatment experienced by the poor, they need to strengthen their connections with other grassroots organizations. All too often the social worlds of human rights organizations are far away from the lives of the poor. However, there are large numbers of organizations that do have solid roots amongst the poor. They will, more often than not, be organizations that never utter the words “human rights”—such as woman’s groups, youth clubs, churches and health organizations—but they can be interested in extending human rights protections. Examples of such relationships in Kenya, Nepal and Bangladesh include mobile health clinics, close ties with informal trader’s associations, and community justice centers. Not only do these organizations often have a good sense of what day to day life is like, but the poor generally trust them more. Such organizations are therefore well placed to identify victims and to provide necessary support. If human rights organizations dedicate resources to identifying these local partners, and then train them to address torture and ill treatment among the poor, we could begin to close the gap. Not to do anything is to perpetuate the continued disavowal of large sections of society.