Wearing down the mountain

Fiona Callister speaks to Sir Nigel Rodley about the tension between emotion and analysis in his role as a UN rapporteur.

There is a discernible air of melancholy about Professor Sir Nigel Rodley. Given that his job for the United Nations involves studying the depths of human cruelty and reading detailed accounts from its victims, his world-weary demeanour is only to be expected.

As the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, his is a job which would seem to offer few rewards, apart, perhaps, from knowing that something – however small – is being done.

“One knows it is going to be a long haul in human rights work. I often use the analogy of water dripping on a stone.” He pauses to remember why he has chosen that particular image and then continues.

“I was very touched at school by a Norse legend of a crow coming down to a mountain once a year, scratching its beak and flying off. According to the legend, the day the mountain was no longer there would be the first day of infinity.

“I certainly hope it is not going to be such a long haul, but the idea of the slow nagging effect of my work is something that one simply has to believe has some value.”

Rodley has been scratching away at the mountain for all of his adult life. In 1973 he joined Amnesty International as the organisation’s first legal adviser, where he stayed for 17 years before leaving to become professor of human rights law at the University of Essex. In 1993 he was appointed to his current position, a role that Amnesty had been demanding for years.

Rodley admits to being surprised that he got the position, believing that the UN would shy away from a lawyer with such overt Amnesty links.

He sits with a slight stoop, as if half way to putting his head in his hands. Every inch the traditional academic, he speaks slowly and carefully considers every question before answering.

While he is perfectly charming and incredibly accommodating, his frequent smiles do not stretch all the way to his eyes, as if the brutal reality of his work keeps simple pleasures at bay.

He is quick to admit that the only yardstick available to him to measure the effects of his work is through the reports of campaign groups, which he knows can give a highly inaccurate portrait of the actual situation in a country.

While human rights organisations tend to be very vocal about the treatment of political prisoners, the cause of the ordinary common criminal can often be ignored, despite the fact, says Rodley, that much of the world’s torture is perpetrated against criminals.

A recent trip brought the gap between the reports and reality home to Rodley. He visited a country which according to reports did not seem to have a problem, but what he saw there left him shell-shocked. He cannot name the country as his report has yet to be presented to the UN.

“They were just too inefficient and unsophisticated to hide this stuff. Some of what we saw made me realise that I was not as inured to it as I thought I was,” admits Rodley, looking intently at his hands and avoiding my gaze.

“It was possible to see the scars and the open wounds, the nail-less fingers and so on. I saw more than I am used to. As a rule one is used to finding documentary evidence of various sorts and one doesn’t so often these days see the real, raw, almost immediate, suffering,” he says.

He is still trying to develop techniques to cope with the psychological aftermath of his trips.

“Sometimes I find that I may emote more to a testimony I see on television, when I am not ready for it, than when I am getting it direct from the alleged victim. Face to face the analytical side of the brain takes over. Like doctors, you develop a clinical dispassion, as I guess lawyers do vis-a-vis their clients.

“When it is as raw as on my last trip, it lingers with you. But it’s probably good that it does, as it serves to remind oneself that one got into this business because one was angry. Perhaps ultimately anger is the way that you deal with it, by rechannelling the emotion.”

That anger has been with him for a long time. Most of his father’s family died in concentration camps during the Holocaust but his father escaped, came to the UK as a refugee and later joined the British armed forces only to die at Arnhem.

While Rodley would have only been four or five at the time of the Nuremberg trials, he considers them the seminal event in his life. He describes the trials as “precisely the response to injustice”, but argues that there have not been enough international trials since.

And it is a return to the idea that an oppressive regime should be answerable to the international community that Rodley is currently fighting for.

The struggle involves two approaches, firstly to bring about an end to impunity for torture and secondly to bring an international criminal court into force.

After the trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo, the idea of international jurisdiction disappeared until the tribunals on the former Yugoslavia and then Rwanda.

However, says Rodley, the UN became uncomfortable with the ad hoc approach, where the perpetrators of injustice were only brought to trial if there was the political will on the part of the Security Council.

In July last year the statute permitting the creation of a permanently standing international criminal court was passed, but it will only come into force once 60 countries have ratified the statute.

So far, the number of ratifications is very small but Rodley argues it is very early days given that national legislation has to be altered or checked to allow ratification.

Rodley was encouraged by the recent Pinochet case which, he says, recognised the validity of internationally applicable criminal law.

However, while Rodley says that he does not want to discuss the case in depth as it is difficult in his position, he admits being disappointed that the first judgment was not allowed to stand.

He questions how important Lord Hoffmann’s non-declaration of his connections to the charitable wing of Amnesty really was, but concedes that if it was necessary to have a second judgment brought to make the case “squeaky clean”, then needs must.

Turning to more general legal questions, I ask Rodley whether there can be a universal definition of torture to be applied in an international criminal court – or is torture relative to the culture it is perpetrated in?

Rodley pauses before giving his answer, pushing his fingertips together as he leans back in his chair.

For Rodley, torture is not a simple thing to define or fight. As a lawyer he is aware of the complexities surrounding the definition of the term.

“If you are in prison and you are served bacon and eggs every day this would be great. However, if you are Jewish or Muslim and that is the only food you are getting then it is not so good,” he explains.

“Also, if you are handed a death threat and you are in a country where people are regularly killed by the authorities, that has more of an impact on you than in a country where that does not happen.”

Torture can even become relative to the victims.

“Things become relative. I remember one prisoner [in Chile] explaining how he had been put on a small chair, tied in an uncomfortable position, beaten, and threatened with a pistol put to his head, but he told me ‘at least I was not tortured’. I asked him ‘How do you mean you weren’t tortured?’ and he said, ‘Well they didn’t give me electric shocks.’ Ten years before, I went to Chile and saw the cigarette burns on people’s bodies.”

There is a danger, he cautions, with following this argument in that it could lead to some kind of racism, thinking that people from these countries do not feel pain in the same way that we do.

While his UN position requires detached subjectivity the man who helped form Amnesty International is still driven by passion. These arguments, he believes, only apply to the very peripheries of torture. Hard core torture is still torture wherever it occurs.

In recognition of his work for human rights, Rodley received a knighthood in this year’s New Year Honours. It is a subject that he seems a little embarrassed about. He sees his selection as recognition of the work of many in the field of human rights, adding that it seems strange for a “little lad from Leeds” to become a Sir.

However, his day at Buckingham Palace was tinged with sadness and regret.

“The sad part is that there is not much of my family left. Both my parents are dead. There was a big lump-in-the-throat moment when I thought of what the knighthood would have meant to both of them,” he says.
Proffesor Sir Nigel Rodley
Special Rapporteur on Torture
United Nations (UN)