State violence committed against its very population

The European Convention on Human Rights that was ratified by Germany in 1952 and entered into force on 3 September 1953 obliges all states party to the Convention to grant all persons subject to their jurisdiction certain rights and basic freedoms. All EU Member States have ratified the Convention, which confirms among other things the:

  • Right to life (Article 2)
  • Prohibition of torture (Article 3)
  • Right to liberty and security (Article 5)
  • Right to a fair trial (Article 6).

UN Resolution 217 A (III), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 10 December 1948 prescribes in Article 5: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” It is true that the Declaration is not legally binding, but new UN Member States automatically commit to abide by it by virtue of their membership in the UN.

State violence and their victims

Still, Amnesty International (ai) documented that in 2010 human rights were violated in 157 countries and regions worldwide. What happens when a state massively violates human rights and perpetrates violence against its citizens? What kinds of state violence against citizens are there? What are the political backgrounds for state violence? State violence has many faces. It manifests itself through:

  • Unlawful restrictions on freedom of expression;
  • Imprisonment of non-violent political protesters;
  • Torture and other kinds of abuse;
  • Death penalty;
  • Refusal of fair trials and the ordering of unfair trials;
  • Arbitrary arrest and the ‘disappearance’ of members of the opposition;
  • Physical and psychological intimidation, such as death threats and threats of torture.

The victims of state violence can be found amongst members of the political opposition, the media, opposite ethnic groups as well as competing societal or business interest groups. Depending on the prevailing state ideology and legal concept, violent attacks against freedom of speech and individual freedoms are also geared to those with different faiths or ‘infidels.’ People are also discriminated against and persecuted because of their sexual orientation, their sex and their ethnic origin. Often, threats from ‘outside’ are given as a reason why people are unlawfully persecuted ‘to protect the state.’


Torture has been used for centuries to force people to give information, to punish, to humiliate or to demean them. Victims are beaten, raped, or exposed to physical or psychological distress through ‘waterboarding’ or mock executions. The technical creativity of the torturers over the course of history is mirrored by the medieval rack and thumbscrews to high-tech electronic tools. Systematic deprivation of sleep, the continued use of darkness or extremely bright light, noise, or being forced to remain in certain body postures are also forms of torture.

Torture serves to break the human morale. It not only causes physical pain, injuries and illnesses but also results in psychological disorders, such as paranoia, depression, feelings of shame and humiliation, insomnia and nightmares.

In 2010, 147 of 192 UN Member States had ratified the UN Convention against Torture of 1987, all five permanent members of the UN Security Council amongst them. But regardless of their accession to this legally binding document, numerous Member States continue to use torture.

This is even the case for permanent members of the UN Security Council. In August 2011, former Vice President of the United States Dick Cheney acknowledged the use of torture in his memoirs as a legitimate means in the War on Terror. According to Amnesty International (ai), torture is just as common in Chinese re-education camps as in police stations. Those tortured are dissidents, but also criminals and prostitutes. According to ai, Russia also tortures in prisons and in police stations to “accelerate” investigations. In 2010, Human Rights Watch raised allegations against France, Great Britain and Germany that they were using information from foreign secret services that was gained through torture justified through the War on Terror.

In New York, the Chairman of the UN Committee Against Torture announced in October 2010 that 32 signatory states still do not comply with the reporting requirements and that 64 signatory states have so far not permitted the Committee to inspect individual claims.

This Committee inspects reports of countries on the enforcement of the prohibition of torture on a regular basis. The Convention forbids the use of methods of torture under all circumstances, both in times of war and during an internal political conflict. It is also forbidden to deport people into countries where they might have to face the risk of torture.

All in all, the global aim of zero-tolerance of torture in far from being put into practice.

Death penalty

The death penalty has been part of the legal code of states for millennia to punish those who have committed particularly serious crimes. This is based on the legal position that a deed must not only be atoned for, but also avenged. In many cases, it is also the—unproven—assumption that this maximum penalty acts as a deterrent.

First on the list of crimes punished with the death penalty in some countries is homicide, followed by robbery and abduction resulting in death. But also economic crimes, such as corruption, or moral crimes, such as adultery, prostitution and ‘pimping’ are on the list. Religiously motivated death penalties comprise the renunciation of Islamic beliefs, blasphemy and witchcraft. Some regimes punished the defaming of the head of state (Iraq until 2003) with death. Martial law in some countries foresees the death penalty for high treason, espionage, sabotage and desertion.

According to ai, since 2000, the following execution methods have been used:

  • Decapitation (Saudi-Arabia),
  • Electric chair (United States),
  • Lethal injection (China, Guatemala, Thailand, United States)
  • Stoning (Afghanistan, Iran),
  • Shooting (Belarus, China, Somalia, Taiwan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and other countries),
  • Hanging (Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Pakistan, Singapore and other countries).

On 18 December 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted a Resolution for a global stop of all executions. With 104 yes-votes against 54 no-votes and 29 abstentions, states voted in favour of this resolution. Before voting, the ‘World Coalition against the Death Penalty’, which includes organisations such as ai and 52 other human rights organisations, trade unions, professional associations, and NGOs, had petitioned for the moratorium.

The Resolution is considered to be a decisive step towards the abolition of the death penalty worldwide. NGOs and state actors call for such a ban. In the Resolution of the European Parliament of 7 October 2010 on the occasion of the upcoming World Day against the Death Penalty, it states: “The abolition of the death penalty is a priority for the European Union.”

Sources and further information:

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