Les Misérables, the world’s longest-running musical, is set 200 years ago, in 1815. The story follows the life of a convict / ex-convict, Jean Valjean, who is beleaguered by guilt related to past mistakes made at the time out of desperation, unknowingly, or with good intention. His initial sentence of five years of hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, extended by 14 years when he tries to escape, affects his life irreversibly.
While Les Mis is a work of fiction set in 19th century France, it is based on the real-life experiences and readings of its author, Victor Hugo, who lived through the time in which the story took place. Watching the musical, or the recent film adaptation, one is compelled to feel relieved and thankful that the world is no longer so unforgiving. Unfortunately, however, one is incorrect to do so. The excesses of criminal (in)justice in 19th-century France continue today in the Western world.
In 2014 the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) will be thirty years old. The UNCAT is the primary international treaty which sets out a range of measures which countries should take to prohibit and prevent torture and other forms of ill-treatment. While much has been achieved since the UNCAT was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1984, torture and other forms of ill-treatment continue to occur throughout the world.
The majority of African countries have ratified the UNCAT, however unfortunately little has been achieved to actually implement the objectives of the Convention on the ground. For example, few have made torture a specific criminal offence under their national laws as required by the UNCAT or respect safeguards to ensure that persons detained by the police, or other officials, are treated humanely and not subjected to torture. While a lack of political will, training and resources may be to blame for this limited compliance, in many regards, some of the provisions of the UNCAT are too abstract and it can be difficult for government officials and others to know exactly what must be done to translate the provisions of the UNCAT into effective action on the ground.