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Opinion: If the USA practises torture, then so could any other country

Torture, as well as being abhorrent, doesn’t actually work: it yields unreliable results and can damage subsequent intelligence gathering.

Kirsten Roberts

THIS WEEK, 12 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates wrote an open letter to US President Barack Obama, calling on him to release a Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture. The letter is a stark reminder that the United States, a country that positions itself as the pinnacle of freedom and democracy, practiced torture. This was not in its dim and distant past, but frighteningly recently.

The wider impact of the US’s use of torture has been much discussed. In particular, is the concern highlighted by the Nobel Laureates, that when a country like the US openly practices torture it sets an example that others follow. It lowers the standards for every country. As the letter says “they have made us all vulnerable.”

What is torture?

In international law, torture is the intentional infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering, by a public official – either directly or indirectly – and for a specific purpose. The purpose can be for obtaining information, obtaining a confession, for punishment, or for the purpose of intimidation or coercion.

Recent years have brought a lot of new terms that muddied the waters on the use of torture. Think ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. Some of these terms were introduced to try to get around international laws. Some were PR exercises. Some were likely created because torture comes with such a stigma that no one wishes to openly admit using it. But the experience of the person at the other end of the action is the same. Torture by any other name is still torture.

Torture is never allowed. There is no exception in international law for torture. Its prohibition is absolute. Even in war, even in time of national crisis, it is never, ever permitted.

Torture does not ‘work’

One of the most infamous rationales for using torture is the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario: A ‘terrorist’ knows how to turn off the bomb that is placed in the middle of a city and the only way to get the information is by torturing it out of them. It is a common plot on TV shows. It is also used to create doubt about having an absolute ban on torture. But it is a false debate. (See as one example this interesting discussion by the renowned Geneva-based Association for the Prevention of Torture on the assumptions behind the ‘ticking bomb’ argument). The use of torture techniques is – as Amnesty International describes it – self-defeating. The US Army’s own field manual on intelligence interrogation recognised that ‘force’ doesn’t work. It says; “the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear”.

The reality is that in many countries it is human rights defenders, journalists, or political opponents that are tortured. Often over long periods of time. Amnesty International is so concerned about the widespread use of torture around the world that it launched a new campaign this year. It reported that in the last five years it has found evidence of torture and other forms of ill-treatment in at least 141 countries.

Torture happens when no one is watching

It is widely recognised that torture is most likely to take place in dark and hidden places where no one is watching. For this reason, new prevention approaches have been introduced. One is the creation of ‘National Preventative Mechanisms’. These are independent bodies that have a responsibility to monitor all places where people are detained. These mechanisms are set up when Governments sign up to an Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture. Ireland signed this protocol in 2007. But it has not ratified it and has not created any such body. The reason why is hard to fathom. Reports of international bodies that monitor the use of torture have found some worrying practices in this country. And while we hope that torture is never used, we cannot ever be complacent. If the US can practice torture, we cannot say that another democracy would never do so.

Returning to an absolute prohibition on torture

The letter from the Nobel Laureates supports other calls for President Obama to publish the US Senate’s Report, such as from the American Civil Liberties Union. Publishing the report and thus shining a light on the extent of torture practiced during the ‘war against terrorism’ can help the US to move on and return to a position where it can reclaim the moral high ground on this issue. And this is an issue where you definitely want your country to be on the moral high ground. Not practicing torture is one of those basic standards that separates the democracies from the despots.

The practice of torture is alarmingly widespread in the world. Nations who would position themselves as human rights and international law-respecting democracies must have strict and absolute rules on the use of torture. When the lines on the use of torture get blurred, the standards for everyone reduce and the risks increase for all of us. It is too late to undo what has been done, but the US’s actions now around this report will tell us a lot about its current attitude and future policy, and that is something that we should all be interested in.

Kirsten Roberts is a human rights and international law specialist at King’s College London. Follow her on Twitter @KirstenJRoberts

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Kirsten Roberts

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