Amnesty International Canada delivers address on global struggle against torture

Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada Alex Neve spoke on campus on Wednesday in an address on the the complicated nature of torture as a human rights issue and its continued use despite being banned by international law. In his speech, he called upon attendees to stand in solidarity with Raif Badawi, a journalist who was publicly lashed by the Saudi government due to issuing allegedly derogatory statements about clerics. 

Neve began his talk by quoting a line from Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“No one shall be subjected to torture […] and no exceptional circumstance whatsoever may be invoked as a justification for torture,” he quoted.

Neve then directed attention to torture taking place in Canada. He explained that the federal and provincial governments in Canada use the term ‘administrative segregation’ to denote solitary confinement, which was declared as torture by the United Nations (UN) in 2012. According to Neve, solitary confinement has contributed to the deaths of prisoners such as Ashley Smith, a 19-year-old girl who committed suicide after she was isolated for long periods in correction centers, and Edward Christopher Snowshoe, a federal convict who committed suicide after 162 days in solitary confinement.

“Ashley Smith’s […] death in custody was the subject of a coroner’s inquest in Ontario and there’s no question that the excessive, prolonged, punitive use of solitary confinement in her case killed her,” Neve explained. 

Special Rapporteur on Terror Ben Emerson, an expert appointed by the UN Commission on Human Rights, spoke to the detrimental effects of solitary confinement to a UN general committee in 2011.

“Being confined in isolation produces severe and sometimes irreversible psychological and physical effects including anxiety, depression […] paranoia, self-mutilation, and suicide,” Emerson said.

Neve also stated in his speech that the Canadian government accepts intelligence obtained through torture and also shares that information with other intelligence agencies. He highlighted that the UN committee against torture has called on Canada to revise these policies previously. 

“Rather than adopt and enforce […the recommendations], the ministerial directions go in the exact opposite direction, authorizing what should instead be unconditionally forbidden,“ Neve said. “Last year, the government responded to the committee politely, saying they are content with the directions and [that] there will be no change.” 

Attendee Illa Carrillo-Rodriguez, an Arts postdoctoral fellow, asked if there was an internationally-recognized definition of terrorism, and whether it was being used at the national level in Canada or elsewhere to justify torture.

In response, Neve said that a universal definition of terrorism did not exist on an international level. 

“The one notion of having a treaty-based universally endorsed definition of terrorism [isn’t true],” Neve said. “One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist, and so how do you possibly craft legal definitions [of terrorism]?” 

Attendee Fazal Khan, a U2 Engineering student, spoke to the importance of understanding torture and its connection to human rights.

“I think it is great to reflect and check yourself on the things which are destroying the moral fabric of this society and how we can stop those,” Khan said. “As big as the issue of global torture and torture in Canada is, I think it is more important to understand that torture destroys the essence of human dignity and integrity […] and we need to stop it no matter who is subjected to it.”

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