Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic (New York)

21 July 2009

Malawi: Insufficient Resources No Excuse for Torture


Torture is routinely used as part of police investigations and prison punishment schemes in many parts of Africa.

Common reports of torture in African prisons and police stations include sexual abuse, the administration of electric shocks, the unleashing of dogs on prisoners, and physical beatings. These instances of torture occur amid prison conditions which are substandard and drastically in need of change as evidenced by overcrowding and the systematic denial of medical care, food, and access to legal counsel in many African prisons and police stations.

The Center for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (CHREAA), a Malawian paralegal organization which works in Malawi’s police stations and prisons, in conjunction with law students and faculty from the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic at Fordham Law School in the United States, recently conducted an anti-torture training workshop for members of the Malawi Prison Service and Malawi Police Service. Malawi is not immune to the instances of torture that occur in prisons and police stations throughout Africa, and in fact, throughout the world. We invited prison and police officers from across the country to gather in Blantyre, Malawi, to learn about their obligations to protect prisoners’ rights to be free from torture under international and Malawian law.

During the anti-torture training, time and again, the officers raised the issue of lack of resources as an impediment to upholding prisoners’ rights and combating torture. Although we are sensitive to the fact that in countries in the Global South like Malawi, this crucial consideration makes it difficult, and some might claim impossible, to uphold the human rights of prisoners, insufficient resources are not an excuse for torture. In fact, allegations of torture committed by the United States against detainees post-9/11, prove that a country’s abundance of resources does not equal the absence of torture.

While we empathize with the police and prison officers who during our training bemoaned the lack of resources at their disposal, and while we believe that the Malawian government should earmark more resources to uphold prisoners’ rights, police and prison officers can implement practices and reforms to combat torture without depending on a drastic reallocation of resources. For example, abolishing the use of torture as an investigative tool, in theory and in practice, does not necessitate vast amounts of increased resources. It does not cost anything, for instance, to inform a suspect of his right to remain silent. It does not cost anything to refrain from beating a suspect or to report instances of torture to a supervisor. Certainly, resources would be needed to create new training courses and reliable accountability mechanisms to combat torture. But such changes are not burdensome or unreasonable. Perhaps what is in most need is increased political will to confront these issues.

Moving forward, we hope that all of us - law enforcement, human rights activists, and ordinary citizens alike - will look beyond the resources argument when thinking of how to combat torture within African prisons and police stations, and in doing so embrace our duty as conscientious members of the global community and abiders of international law.

Victor Mhango is the Director of the Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance in Blantyre, Malawi.  Zaid Hydari is a law student in the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic at Fordham Law School in New York City.

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