Editor’s Note: Fourth in a series exploring social justice issues.
Humans like to categorize. We categorize our grocery lists, our movies and even our friends on Facebook. Understanding is a fundamental human need.
But as I discovered this past week, torture and related concepts of violence are hard to place into just one category.
The Convention Against Torture defines torture as: ‘any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, where such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person in an official capacity.’
This definition easily allows us to classify the alleged offender when they are acting on behalf the state. It is worth noting that torture includes both physical and mental cruelty and furthermore this definition provides several reasons why torture is inappropriate.
Truro residents Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarson, founders of Persons Against Non-State Torture, would argue the weakness of this definition is that it focuses only on the behaviour of public officials.
In their 20-plus years of experience, these two nurses have listened to over 3,000 individuals worldwide, share their experiences of torture.
Most of these individuals are women reporting violent experiences that mirrored acts of ‘classic’ torture including electric shock, prolong hours of being hung, cut, burnt, whipped, beaten, limbs dislocated, starved, caged, drugged and raped.
“Based on Linda and my experiences of coming to know non-state torture through witnessing of the terror, torture and horrification stories of victimized persons, non-state torturers present with superiority and discriminatory ‘otherization’, objectification and dehumanization,” says Sarson.
The perpetrators were far too often family members or those who acted at the instigation of family members.
“There was little or, maybe more appropriately, no thought given to torture being a human right crime inflicted in the private/domestic sphere,” says Sarson.
MacDonald explains that the definitions can be dangerous if used to pigeonhole concepts.
“For persons who have suffered the crime of human rights violations of non-state torture they presently do not have this legal right. They require this legal right, it is critical for the healing process,” says MacDonald.
Those victimized could not only suffer from long-term physical damage but experience long-lasting psychological effects (i.e.- post traumatic stress disorder).
MacDonald and Sarsonne provide a support network and take a holistic approach to helping those who have faced trauma.
“Torture shapes their emotions and beliefs and challenges their self and social identity,” explains Sarson.
Their inspiration to create positive change came about 20 years ago when a Nova Scotia woman shared her story of torture.
"She ‘introduced’ us to the reality of the torture victimization she suffered that was inflicted by private individuals or ‘non-state actors.’ That was when we knew there was a difference between sexual assault and acts of torture" says Mcdonald, when asked about the difference between current law and the need for a new defintion.
When not listening to survivors, this dynamic duo is educating, advocating and writing on the issue. They work tirelessly in the community and internationally for legal recognition of non-state torture.
While categorizing is great for games, hurricanes and Oscar awards, torture is too ambiguous to categorize. However, it is necessary to throw about definitions of torture to begin to mutually understand language/concepts.
The stakes are high when we try to master terms but it is a starting point in understanding the spectrum of torture and a beginning to understand the complexity of this kind of violence.
To learn more about non-state torture, visit non state torture.org.
Lia Renaud is a graduate of Western University in London, Ont., and is happy to be now living in Colchester County.