By Stijn Smet, Assistant Professor of Constitutional Law at Hasselt University
I was sitting on the grass outside a classroom at the University of Vienna when I first understood why notions like control, power(lessness) and vulnerability are central to the interpretation of the absolute prohibition of torture. It was a warm and sunny day in Spring, and Manfred Nowak had led us out of the classroom and onto the grass for one of his lectures. Nowak was UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment at the time, and we were enrolled in his university course on torture.
The two scenarios Nowak presented to us that afternoon, as we were sitting comfortably on the grass, decisively shaped my understanding of torture. Nowak asked us which treatment we would qualify as torture: a police officer shooting a suspect in the leg, from behind, as he was fleeing down the streets (in my recollection, it was the left leg); or that same police officer putting out a cigarette on the hand of a suspect in custody. Nowak’s intention was, of course, to encourage us to reflect on the essence of torture. He invited us to consider the idea that powerlessness of the victim and control by the authorities may be at least as important factors as the severity of the physical harm inflicted. Continue reading