On June 26, the world commemorates the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. In Tanzania, however, such commemorations are likely to be muted. Tanzania is among a small minority of countries that have not signed or ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, a United Nations treaty.

Yet Tanzanians, including those who are marginalized and most vulnerable in society, are sometimes tortured and ill-treated by police officers, and often have no recourse to justice. I have spoken with many such victims.

One of them, “Zeitoun,” from Tandika, told me during an interview in 2012:

“They [police officers] arrived and started to beat me around the waist with the butt of their gun. They took my own belt and tied it around my neck and dragged me to the police post. They tied my legs with cuffs, the two legs were tied together and the two hands were handcuffed. I was handcuffed to the gate of the holding cell… hanging like a goat to be roasted.”

Another victim, “Walid” from Zanzibar, described being arrested and sexually abused by police and polisi jamii (community police): “They [beat me with] water pipes and electrical wires. Two of them raped me…. They had canes and pipes, and they hit me on the bottoms of the feet. I couldn’t walk afterwards.”

“Rosemary,” a 14-year-old girl in Mbeya, has had several experiences with police torture. “One time they burned me on the arm with a lighter,” she said, showing me the burn mark. She had also been raped by police “at least seven times.”

Why were they treated this way by the police? Because they are members of marginalized groups who are considered “criminals” under Tanzanian law. They are also victims of social stigma. Zeitoun injects heroin. Walid is gay, or “MSM” – a man who has sex with men. Rosemary is engaged in sex work.

A recent study by Human Rights Watch and the Wake Up and Step Forward Coalition (WASO) found that some members of these marginalized groups are tortured by security forces simply because of who they are.

Of course, they are not the only Tanzanians at risk of torture, according to a recent study by the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC). The report includes the notorious case of Dr. Stephen Ulimboka, who said he was abducted by intelligence agents and then tortured because of his leadership in the doctors’ strike. In another reported case, police broke a man’s legs because he was suspected of stealing.

Despite such horrific abuses, the police have expressed a willingness to address the problem. When we submitted the Human Rights Watch and WASO report to the police, several commissioners, including those responsible for internal affairs, training, and the gender and children’s desks, welcomed the report’s publication and did not deny that abuses occur. They said they will distribute the report to regional commanders, and that they will hold accountable police officers who commit these crimes. Whether police officers’ behavior will improve remains to be seen.

Tanzania’s constitution prohibits torture, but no such prohibition appears in the penal code, making it difficult to hold abusers criminally accountable. At its last Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, Tanzania accepted member states’ recommendations to ratify the Convention against Torture. But it has not yet done so.

One outcome of this inconsistency may be that, although some police officers told Human Rights Watch that torture is unacceptable, that view is not shared at all levels. Police have used heavy-handed methods to quell recent political dissent, encouraged by some government officials who have said that beating protesters is the right thing to do.

Why this emphasis on the Convention against Torture? What difference does it make to ratify a treaty? For one, it sends a clear message to the security forces that when they torture detainees, they are violating both national and international law. Second, it affirms that rights are, in fact, universal. As a party to the Convention against Torture, Tanzania would be required to report on the convention’s implementation, and to demonstrate that it applies to all citizens. It would be required to domesticate the convention, integrating it into national law and providing torture victims with a solid legal basis for filing complaints. And it would be required to prosecute those who violate the law, regardless of their position or rank.

Often, the application of international human rights standards is most urgent for vulnerable groups. In some countries, these may be minorities, including ethnic, political, or religious minorities, whom those in power may have an interest in silencing. In some countries, these may be children, who may lack sufficient protections under national laws. And in Tanzania, sex workers, sexual and gender minorities, and people who use drugs, among others, fall into this category of most vulnerable. A clear commitment to international law on the part of the authorities would provide them, and all Tanzanians, an additional layer of protection.

Any discussion of protecting the rights of marginalized groups elicits controversy in Tanzania. That is normal: the unknown always provokes fear. Only recently have sex workers, sexual and gender minorities, and people who use drugs begun to speak out. Public debates around these issues are still in their early stages. But today, can we all agree on one thing: that no one deserves to be tortured?

Ratifying the Convention against Torture would not end torture or ill-treatment in Tanzania overnight. But in light of persistent recurrences of torture – and in a context where the most vulnerable lack a clear legal framework that sets forth consequences for those who abuse them – it is a critical step toward ensuring that
the security forces respect the rights of all Tanzanians.