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In international law, the prohibition of torture is absolute: under no circumstance is torture tolerated. This is a principle so universally accepted that it ranks as customary international law (ius cogens), meaning it is binding upon every member of the international community regardless of treaty ratifications.
Torture is defined in the 1984 Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and its prohibition is codified in key international treaties and declarations. However, torture continues to be perpetrated in various situations throughout the globe and is often condoned by ruling authorities. The forms of torture inflicted can vary and be well-concealed, e.g. during investigations, particularly in pre-trial detention but also in prison, often after unfair or politically-motivated trials.
Authoritarian countries have used and continue to use different forms of torture to oppress activists, journalists, peaceful protesters, political opponents. Some types of torture are harder to detect, because they leave no visible traces on the body, but are focused on psychological destabilisation and have long-term effects on the mental health of the victim. But western & democratic countries are unfortunately not spared from horrid episodes of use of torture, either in war or anti-terrorist contexts (many remember the ghastly images of US troops in the prison of Abu Ghraib, Iraq), but also and mostly in detention centres.

So we ask ourselves, how to improve mechanisms of protection against torture, and how to further deter the use of ill-treatment and inhumane practices? And especially, does art have a role to play in this? We believe the answer is yes and in this series we will share some stories in this regard, to carry on the discussion.

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Art-making generates safety, encouragement, validation and represents an opportunity to narrate traumatic experiences which cannot always be verbalized. Creating paintings, drawings, sculptures, music, or photographs can help individuals to recover from traumatic circumstances such as torture and ill-treatment. That is why art therapy, often combined with other psychotherapy techniques, is gaining more & more recognition in the treatment of a wide range of mental disorders and psychological distress. Among others, art therapy may be used to treat conditions such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The latter is a common disorder among torture survivors, who can find difficulties in processing – therefore overcome – the psychological and/or physical violence they underwent.

“Each time I try to change the topic and find another path into my drawing, an exit, a window, I finally come back to the same,” said Najah al-Bukai to Reuters. After participating in the protests against the government, Syrian artist al-Bukai was arrested and tortured several times between 2012 and 2015 by the Syrian authorities. In prison, he was electrocuted, brutally beaten, starved and hanged from his hands for hours. He now lives and works in Paris, and his work focuses exclusively on the portrayal of the scenes he witnessed while detained. Drawing became his mechanism to heal from the physiological wounds and trauma he carries from his time in prison.
“Once you live through this experience, it will stay with you. I cannot stop the images of what I saw from appearing in my mind, and drawing these images over and over became an obsession. Drawing helps me in healing and coping with the pain,” al-Bukai said.
In his work al-Bukai generally uses a ball pen. His characters are mainly drawn in black and white and convey a poignant feeling of pain and despair.

Drawings: ©️ Copyright Najah al-Bukai