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UN: Officials Appeal For End To 'Silent Epidemic' Of Torture

UN human rights officials have made a renewed appeal to states to eliminate the practice of torture, which they say still occurs in at least 70 countries. Anti-torture activists call it a "silent epidemic" in which victims are slow to come forward against perpetrators. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 27 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- It can be found wherever wars are raging or where democracy has not taken hold.

It can take the form of a blunt physical blow or protracted psychological deprivation.

It has been around nearly as long as recorded history and, according to human rights officials, it remains widely practiced in the world today.

Torture was the focus of international attention on Monday as the United Nations promoted events aimed at supporting victims of the practice and pressing governments to ban it. Kosovo, where a number of cases have been reported, was host of the worldwide launch of the event, with representatives from Serbian and ethnic Albanian communities participating.

In New York, the director of the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Bacre Waly Ndiaye, told journalists that torture is widespread. Ndiaye said in the past year the commission's special rapporteur on torture has received complaints that it was in use in at least 70 countries. And the methods, he said, are as varied and cruel as in medieval times.

"Among the practices most commonly described by the rapporteur are electric shock to private parts and extremities, beating on the soles of the feet, suspension by limbs, scalding by boiling water, uncomfortable and humiliating positions, and death threats."

Ndiaye urged all countries to ratify the convention against torture, which has already been ratified by 119 states and went into effect in 1987.

But ratification is not a guarantee the practice will stop, as UN rapporteur officials have learned. In meetings last autumn in Geneva, for example, the UN Committee Against Torture called on authorities in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan to take greater measures to cut down on police brutality.

Just last week, Human Rights Watch reported that Uzbek poet and opposition leader Mamadali Makhmudov, who is in jail in Uzbekistan, has been tortured and his life may be in danger. And recently in Turkey, another signatory to the convention, a parliamentary report found torture to be widespread and systematic.

The convention defines torture as any act in which -- with the consent of public officials -- severe pain or suffering is inflicted on a person for purposes such as trying to obtain information or a confession. Or it can involve punishing a person for an act he is suspected of committing. It can also involve inflicting pain based on discrimination of any kind.

A program for torture survivors run jointly by New York University and Bellevue Hospital has cared for more than 600 people from about 50 countries. The program's director, Allen Keller, told reporters on Monday that the survivors receiving care have been tortured for questioning ruling powers, for expressing religious beliefs, or because of their race or ethnicity.

Keller says the program is currently caring for about five or more cases per week.

"We've cared for monks and nuns from Tibet, student leaders from Africa, and ordinary citizens from Bosnia. Recently, we've seen a number of visitors, not surprisingly, from Kosovo and Sierra Leone."

Keller and other speakers on Monday said that prosecuting those who commit torture and breaking the silence surrounding torture are key to helping victims overcome their pain. He said in some countries there is a growing official awareness of torture victims that is helping them to get referrals to treatment centers.

Inge Genefka is secretary-general of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, a 25-year-old organization based in Copenhagen. She said torture has been used effectively by regimes to silence some of the stronger voices of a country's population. Its impact, she says, is felt by the victims' families and sometimes spans generations.

It is important, Genefka says, that torture be publicized so that victims can be treated, perpetrators can be prosecuted, and societies can generate the political will to eliminate it.

"Torture is an illness that neither the victim nor, obviously, the perpetrator is inclined to reveal because it is so shameful, it so much attacks the dignity of the victims. But we have to support the victims."

Genefka called for more education and awareness -- including special training for law enforcement personnel -- to overcome the climate of tolerance that has allowed torture to endure.