Torture and our “special relationship” with Malaysia

Are you old enough to remember being caned in school? Maybe a ruler across the hand. A whack across the knuckles, maybe? A belt or a whack across the legs from the more sadistic teachers?

I remember at my alma mater, St Malachy’s College in Belfast, back in the bad old days when corporal punishment was still legal, we had a priest who gloried in the title Dean of Discipline. Tremble-inducing stuff. Thank goodness those days are in the past.

Not in Malaysia, though. A report from Amnesty out today paints a horrific picture of the brutal nature of caning in Malaysia. This isn’t schoolboy misdemeanour stuff. Caning, which was first introduced into the country by the British in the 19th century as part and parcel of colonial regulations to keep the natives in check, has now reached epidemic proportions.

Each year an estimated 6,000 refugees and 10,000 prisoners are caned. Specially trained caning officers tear into victims’ bodies with a metre-long cane swung with both hands at high speed. According to the report, the “cane rips into the victim’s naked skin, pulps the fatty tissue below, and leaves scars that extend to muscle fibre.” The pain is so severe that victims often lose consciousness. Here, have a look at this video from 2006 (please note that the caning footage contains scenes that some may find disturbing):

One of the most unpleasant aspects of this business is that doctors are being paid to revive victims when they lose consciousness during their beatings – for the sole purpose that their punishment can continue. This is clearly contrary to internationally accepted medical ethics. Security officers get bonuses for each lashing they deliver – some use the payment to double their salaries. The crimes which merit a caning? Could be as non-violent as trespassing, forgery or immigration violations, such as illegal entry.

Why should we care? Well, this is torture, plain and simple, and is therefore outlawed by international law – specifically the UN Convention Against Torture. It should, perhaps, come as no surprise that Malaysia has refused to ratify this Convention, despite it being one of the core international human rights treaties. Nevertheless, Malaysia is legally bound by the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment at all times, because the prohibition is a rule of customary international law.

Northern Ireland, of course, has its own “special relationship” with Malaysia. Nowhere is there more evident than at Queen’s University Belfast, which last year conferred an honorary degree on the King of Malaysia, the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong.

As part of this relationship, Queen’s runs a Queen’s-Malaysia Lecture Series. As Minister, Sir Reg Empey, said at the time of the King’s honorary degree:

It is through sharing skills and expertise at home and abroad that we can further develop successful partnerships for the greater good.

In that spirit, perhaps next year this lecture series could feature a tie-in with the Human Rights Centre at Queen’s and focus on the international crime of torture? Or, maybe the university’s renowned Centre for Medical Education could organise a session on medical ethics?

I am the Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK and an occasional human rights blogger at Amnesty Blogs: Belfast & Beyond.

I’m on Twitter at @PatrickCorrigan