Search Results

You are looking at 1 - 10 of 11 items for

  • Author or Editor: Victoria Canning x
Clear All Modify Search

In the month prior to submitting this book for publication I garnered opinions of approximately 100 practitioners working on trauma, torture, violence and rehabilitation, discussing if or how much the concept of torture is of central relevance to their work. For some, particularly lawyers and legal advisors working on international committees and advising governments accused of torture, it was paramount: without the concept of torture, all aspects of international or criminal justice, accountability or torture rehabilitation would be defunct. Others alluded to the possibility of ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’, only themselves to agree that the concept of and terminology around ‘torturous’ holds a linguistic and discourse advantage in its derivation of ‘torture’, given torture’s common understanding as the most heinous of all violence.

For others, my continued inclusion of legal definitions of torture undoes the objective of transcending definitional boundaries of torture, since some aspects of the book continue to build around it. For some psychologists and psychotraumatologists in particular, the term can be relevant for survivors of torture, but far from relevant to treatment or rehabilitation since extreme violence may have been part of a longer-term trajectory, even from childhood. As a number of people argued, even assessing for ‘torture’ can be highly problematic: people receiving support can relay torture as one of many traumatic events or forms of serious physical or psychological violence. Without a torture assessment, they might see many more self-elected survivors of extreme violence who experience the same impacts of trauma. In short, torture assessments may be useful to an extent for responding to state inflicted or sanctioned torture, but they also act as a metaphorical sieve for responding to other forms of extreme violence, even those which may mirror torture in their sustained and impactful nature.

Restricted access

Whether rape and sexualized violence is inherently perceived as torture is the subject of debate. For feminists such as Copelon (2004) and MacKinnon (2006), rape is in and of itself torture, while for others, such as Green and Ward (2004) and Rodley (2015, cited in Davis, 2017; see also Rodley, 2002), defining rape as torture lies in state participation or culpability. For some of the practitioners interviewed across my research projects who counselled survivors of rape in any capacity, sexualized violence has been variously defined: some as torture because of the levels of pain and humiliation inflicted on survivors, as well as any resultant traumata; some adamant that state involvement is a crucial aspect. This is the case in relation to publicly political realms, such as prisons, but also domestic and interpersonal spheres, and outside of typical conflict or persecutory violence, especially violence by partners or other family members and traffickers (see also Herman, 1992; Peel, 2004; McGregor, 2014).

To some degree, this chapter addresses the implications of endemic levels of sexualized violence in conflict which is seldom discussed as ‘torture’ but as tactical rape (Peel, 2004; Fitzpatrick, 2016). Relevant UN Security Council Resolutions are critically explored, and more recent steps taken to define and understand such violence as torture is evaluated (for example, the recent special editions of the Torture journal which focus on sexualized, gender-based and gendered torture [2018]). However, the primary objective of this chapter is to determine what separates these categories of violence, and if or how these are contingent with case study examples of violence when we focus on forms and impacts, rather than motivations and context.

Restricted access

As this book has charted so far, there are various ways in which violence can be interpreted and recognized. For the most part, academic and legalistic frameworks often depend heavily on fairly narrow legislative definitions, specifically the Convention Against Torture and its protocols, which I defined as orthodox legalism in Chapter 1. Those working at grassroot or practitioner level more often combine lived experience with legal understandings, defined as legalist hybridity, or indeed a more free-flowing focus on experience as the most significant factor in approaching survivors of torturous violence, defined as experiential epistemologies.

This chapter moves to focus almost exclusively the latter of these three categories. It is here that I draw in the oral histories of women who have survived violence at various stages of their lives, all of whom, at the time of undertaking oral histories and ethnographic research (2016–2018) were seeking asylum or had recently obtained refugee status.

Restricted access

Green and Ward argue that, although often undertaken as a way to press for information, torture serves to silence through humiliation and degradation (2004; see also Scarry, 19885; Rejali, 2007; Kelly, 2012). Interestingly, although this is recognized in torture literatures, as we can see thus far little emphasis is placed on sexualized torture and silence. This is despite the prolific evidence presented by feminists that demonstrates sexualized violence to be a tool to silence, and that is in and of itself socially silenced (Kelly, 1988; Ahrens, 2006; Canning, 2011a; Jordan, 2012). Even in my own experience, throughout the duration of this fieldwork I was regularly informed by participants and other members working in the centres I visited that this area was under-researched, and that sexualized violence was not always (or for some, often) specifically addressed, even though survivors of sexualized torture had been supported by staff. As mentioned in Chapter 4, I have even been informed that I had created an ‘air of suspicion’ for asking questions related to sexualized violence generally, and sexual torture specifically – a further indication of its sociopolitical sensitivity, even among those who challenge some of the most silenced forms of violence.

As one interviewee put it, sexualized violence may be “one of many traumas”. This perspective is perhaps understandable given multifarious forms of torture that some practitioners support people to work through. Yet the context of such violence, which is shrouded in stigma and silence (Ahrens, 2006; Canning, 2011a and 2011b; Canning, 2014; Jordan, 2012), can lead to outright exclusion for some survivors. That is not to say that other forms of torture do not induce humiliation, but that this is not often as taboo or stigmatized as sexual violence generally or sexual torture specifically, including for male survivors of sexualized torture.

Restricted access

This book has sought to provide a lens which transcends disciplines and perspectives, incorporating intersectional feminism, and a zemiological approach to do so. By now, you may agree with some of the objectives, or disagree with the overall ethos of transcending the definitional boundaries of torture that underpins the central argument. It is an intervention which aims to draw debate rather than situate narrow or polarizing views, and hopefully it does so.

However, while all these aspects have been important, so too is considering responses to survivors. In undertaking interviews, I asked all practitioners across all projects to outline examples of best practice in working with survivors of violence, torture or with refugees (some worked across all these, some with one or two), and to consider what changes could be made to facilitate them to undertake their roles as well as possible. Similarly, as well as observing clear gaps – sometimes voids – in support in asylum centres and immigration detention, I also often asked people seeking asylum what would best support them.

This chapter outlines some of these responses. It draws out key issues and barriers to support in the aftermath of torture, torturous violence, sexualized torture and sexualized torturous violence. It does not seek to provide psychological or therapeutic answers to these questions: that is the role of psychologists, counsellors and psychotraumatologists, and I am none of these. Moreover, there are a plethora of texts, and the Istanbul Protocol (2004), which do this, developed by people with the expertise to do so, and for this there is a suggested reading list at the end of the chapter.

Restricted access

Contemporary legal and academic frameworks around torture are predominately based in the UN Convention against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (United Nations, 1984). Focus is therefore often placed on the intentional infliction of pain or suffering in the context of obtaining information, for the purposes of punishment, and/or with the involvement or consent of a state official, or sometimes working on behalf of a state. As such, torture is an instrument of state violence, one which is inflicted within sites of detention and confinement, and/or in relation to publicly political agendas. As UN Secretary General António Guterres recently noted, ‘The prohibition of torture is absolute – under all circumstances. Yet this core principle is undermined every day in detention centres, prisons, police stations, psychiatric institutions and elsewhere’ (Guterres, 2019). This statement, like many others, reiterates legalistic notions of torture as an infliction of suffering which relates almost exclusively to confinement. While this is of paramount importance in the context of state crime, there is significant scope for developing a gendered analysis of torture both within and beyond this sphere.

These discussions, debates and cases about what constitutes torture have serious sociopolitical consequences, as seen in the context of, for example, the ground-breaking Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture (Jones, 2014). However, the one common thread throughout much scholarship and literature is that it takes for granted normative definitions of torture, with little discussion of what torture is or what we mean when we use the term. As this chapter, and later chapters will highlight, over-dependence on this deterministic epistemological stance can be highly problematic.

Restricted access

The chapter moves to outline forms of torture documented historically, and how torture (in its narrowest definitional sense) is documented. This primarily considers two substantial works: Torture and Democracy by Darius Rejali, and This Side of Silence by Tobias Kelly. It outlines physical inflictions such as electrotorture, waterboarding, prolonged bath submersion and near-drowning, prodding, beating, induced stress positions and tortures such as noise, light and mock execution. Importantly, Rejali’s work has been fundamental in exploring the silencing effects of ‘clean’ torture – that is, torture which is inflicted in more subtle ways through stealth that become difficult or impossible to physically evidence. As Kelly went on to highlight, this has significant implications for survivors of torture who are seeking asylum, as well as obtaining justice for their subjections, since evidence is diminished and thus so is the burden of proof.

From this, we look at the forms of torture identified by practitioners working with survivors of torture and/or sexualized violence. This chapter broadens the scope of practitioner narratives included to draw correlations between forms of violence documented as torture, and those which are not. The latter part of this chapter shifts focus to look at the consequences and impacts of torture. It is important to highlight the complex specificities of these impacts here, so we can later draw correlations and distinctions in other chapters, as we then shift away from narrow definitions and towards the conceptualization of torturous violence in a broader and more experiential sense.

Restricted access
Transcending Definitions of Torture

There is growing recognition that torture is too narrowly defined in law, and that psychological and/or sexualised violence against women is not adequately recognised as torture.

Clearly defining torturous violence, this book offers scholars and practitioners critical reflections on how torture is defined, and the implications that narrow definitions may have on survivors. Drawing on over a decade of research and interviews with psychologists, practitioners, and women seeking asylum, it sets out the implications of the social silencing of torture, and torturous violence specifically. It invites us to consider alternative ways to understand and address the impacts of physical, sexualised and psychological abuses.

Restricted access

The concept of social justice is fundamental to refugee status. That one might be subjected to or fear persecution, but offered protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention, was a monumental addition to post-Second World War responses to the injustices of both the Holocaust and of broader violations of human rights and human dignity. Thus, for survivors of persecution, the prospect of rebuilding a life in perceptively safe states – through the sanctuary offered by such protections – is a central form of justice.

This chapter outlines injustices women disproportionately face as part of a continuum of violence prior to seeking asylum and through the process itself. Sanctuary is, I argue, perforated with the diffusion of controls through asylum by trial; the use of immigration detention; and in the centralization of criminal justice responses to sexual trafficking in place of truly humanitarian interventions. In all, the process of seeking asylum is itself a kind of Kafkaesque trial, and as such this chapter offers interventions which might truly centralize an alternative feminist social justice.

Restricted access

Torture is simultaneously a silenced entity and an overused term – something we often shy away from in serious discussion, but a word we might use flippantly. It is not uncommon to use the term ‘torture’ to describe mild displeasures: sitting through a poorly written play, listening to a song we don’t like, spending time with an odious relative. Meanwhile, debates about what torture actually is continue across the social and political sciences, law courts and military tribunals. In the aftermath of 9/11 in particular, whether violations should be deemed torture or cruel and inhuman treatment or indeed – as the Bush administration rolled out as a means to ‘interrogate’ potential terrorists – Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, continue. Meanwhile, violations which may amount to torture continue globally – daily and routinely.

This book stems from a long-term grappling with this concept: torture. Since the mid-2000s I have worked with and researched various forms of violence – some over long periods of time, others (such as childhood abuse) over shorter periods. Research and activism have focused on sexualized violence, trafficking, domestic abuse, conflict-related rape, and torture with women seeking asylum in Northern Europe. There have been many times that I have spoken with women who have survived various and often multiple abuses, never to refer to them as torture. And yet the forms of violence they are subject to, as this book will highlight, are no less impactful in their inflictions of harm than that which we might recognize as torture.

Full Access