Human Rights Day: South Asian States must end culture of impunity for torture

The pervasive practice of torture and other ill treatment can only be addressed if the States in the region ensure perpetrators are held accountable in line with international standards, said lawyers and activists from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The call came at a regional conference on the investigation and prosecution of torture and other ill treatment in South Asia, organized by the ICJ ahead of Human Rights Day.

“Governments in South Asia have done very little to support the victims and survivors of torture and other ill treatment, or to ensure their rights to truth, justice and reparation,” said Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s Asia Director.

“Despite the persistence of the practice, Governments have failed to follow their legal obligation to treat these crimes as the serious human rights violation they are,” he added.

Torture and other ill treatment are prevalent in South Asia, and in some countries widespread and systematic, with perpetrators enjoying impunity for the crime.

According to the ICJ, States in the region continue to deny the pervasiveness of torture, use torture as a deliberate tool to control and punish dissent, fail to enact specific legislation to criminalize torture, and where a special law exists, fail to implement it in good faith.

Consequently, there have been few concerted efforts to hold perpetrators of torture and ill treatment to account.

All too often, perpetrators get away with only disciplinary sanctions, and even when prosecutions happen, they do not result in convictions and commensurate penalties.

Suspects are often lower or middle-ranking public officials rather than their superiors, who are charged with lesser crimes than torture, such as assault, battery, coercion or abuse of office that carry relatively low punishments.

Prosecutions frequently fail because of the difficulties to prove torture, including securing witnesses for the prosecution, inadequate or conflicting medical evidence as well as threats of reprisals influencing victims and witnesses.

Even when such hurdles are overcome, immunities that protect public officials from prosecutions allow perpetrators to escape accountability.

Furthermore, military and intelligence agencies have extensive and unaccountable powers, including for arrest and detention, which facilitate the practice of torture and other ill treatment.

Under international law, States must ensure protection against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Whenever there are reasonable grounds to believe that torture has been committed, States are required to investigate allegations competently, impartially, independently, promptly and thoroughly.

While a comprehensive set of reforms, both in law and policy, is required to prevent and combat torture and other ill treatment – ensuring accountability for perpetrators would be a first step, said the ICJ.


Frederick Rawski (Bangkok), ICJ Asia Pacific Regional Director, e: frederick.rawski(a)

Reema Omer, ICJ International Legal Adviser for South Asia (Lahore), t: +923214968434; e: reema.omer(a)