Research Leader, Associate Professor Danielle Celermajer
Torture, like so many of the more gruesome of human rights violations, is imbued with the dark mystery of horror and violence without retribution. For many, torture is understood as something that happens behind the closed doors of such notorious prisons as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, something almost too awful to contemplate and a problem so deeply entrenched in conflict that it seems unsolvable. But a new research project led by Associate Professor Danielle Celermajer, director of the Master of Human Rights and Democratisation, is looking to the social sciences for the solution.
Last year Associate Professor Celermajer was awarded a 1.5 million eruos grant by the European Commission to conduct a three-year project researching the practice of torture within the police and military in a few countries in Asia-Pacific region. Working with local research teams, this project is set to create a new interregional and interdisciplinary space for rethinking one of the world’s most significant human rights problems.
What makes this project unique is its emphasis on finding new ideas and new solutions, without the international humanitarian law rulebook in hand. Instead, the aim of the project is to steer away from traditional teaching models of right versus wrong in favour of learning about torture as a professional practice and about the realities of those who perpetrate it.
While it may seem strange for a human rights–based project to be working with 'the enemy', as Associate Professor Celermajer told The Sun Herald earlier this year, the very essence of this project is to tackle the problem at its source: "Human rights advocates usually ask us to imagine the worlds of the victims, but in this case it’s the other way around – we’re attempting to understand … the perpetrators."
So how can one research project decipher the puzzle of why a member of the police or military might commit acts of torture, and what can be done to stop this? The only way to do this, according to Associate Professor Celermajer, is to make the police and military the protagonists in this story – and that’s where the interdisciplinary research component comes in.
In the first year of the project the core research team will investigate how torture becomes a normalised practice within the police and military around the world, what is currently being done about it and why this is or isn’t working. These research findings will then be presented to some of the world’s leading experts on torture from the fields of criminology, education, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, military training and political science. The brief of this expert team will be to delve into the grey area between right and wrong and rethink the many reasons why police and military personnel practise torture, and to draw on the successful approaches of various disciplines to devise an effective and innovative strategy that focuses on police and military personnel themselves.
In the second year of the project, a 12-member group of representatives from partner institutions will work closely with the Sydney research team to translate the research findings into innovative training modules that make a genuine difference. The support and participation of the police and military are central to the success of this project, and participating personnel will become the leaders of change against the use of torture among their peers and within their institutions.
In its final year, the project will present its research findings and training module to an international conference of representatives from government, non-government, military and police organisations from across the Asia–Pacific region. The aim is for this new multidisciplinary approach to be accepted and incorporated into the torture prevention training used by police and military in other countries in the region and across the globe.
While the horror and violence of torture may never abate entirely, this project is paving the way for the social sciences to take the lead in understanding the problem and finding an effective solution.
- For more information on the project click here
- Read an op-ed column by Associate Professor Danielle Celermajer: Torture causes long-term harm to more than just the initial victims (2012)
- Watch an interview with Danielle Celermajer talking about Preventing human rights abuses (2012)
- Read a report by SMH on the Torture Prevention project: Why understanding torture may help prevent it (2012)