The other day I attended a conference organized by Advocats Sans Frontières called "The Role of the Legal Profession in Combating Torture." It was extremely interesting. I was particularly impressed with the presentation of Professor Manfred Nowak, Director of the Ludwig Botzmann Institute of Human Rights at University of Vienna and the current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, who did an excellent job. Jamil Dakwar, the ACLU's Human Rights Program Director, and Anthony Valcke, Liberia Country Director for the ABA, also spoke, among a number of others from Europe.
Nowak focused on a number of simple legal principles that significantly reduce the practical likelihood of torture, such as the right to a lawyer (freely chosen by the individual), sufficient legal aid, habeus corpus, the right of release on bail, presumption of innocence, etc. All of these concepts are certainly significant in their own right, but some of them also make it very difficult as a practical matter for there to be time or secrecy sufficient for torture because, unbeknownst to me, most torture apparently takes place within hours of being detained or arrested. This makes sense in light of something else I had not been aware of, which is that most torture is for the purpose of trying to extract confessions. (I guess it's kind of a caricature, but I really do think I always just pictured torture as something done simply for the sheer evil impunity of it. I guess it's more realistic to consider that the torturers are usually after something in particular, although inspiring fear or intimidation can be as much a purpose as any.) In fact, drawing on Article 1 and Article 16 of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other CIDT (Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment), Nowak defined torture exclusively as the infliction of severe pain or punishment on a powerless person for a specific purpose. (He emphasized very clearly that if a person wasn't powerless or if there wasn't a specific purpose, it wasn't torture.)
All in all this was a fascinating conference. I wish I'd had more time to mingle afterwards; I had to return to our office pretty quickly to see some things through. Bravo to Advocats Sans Frontières for organizing it though!