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Expert Voices

Torture Is a Crime

Published February 22, 2016

Curt Goering, CVT’s executive director.

The subject of U.S. policies on torture is back in the news again. With far too much frequency, I’ve been seeing media reports of public figures calling for a return to so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” or, even worse, using dangerous and ill-informed rhetoric in support of reviving these illegal and immoral tactics. In my more than 30 years of human rights and humanitarian work, most recently with the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), I’ve witnessed too often the near destruction of both the human body and the human spirit as a result of torture, as well as the corrosive effects it has on societies and institutions that permit it. And although appropriate rehabilitative care can help to heal the person, I long for the day when organizations such as CVT are put out of business because torture has been wiped off the face of the Earth.  

And for many years as I’ve worked in this field, it seemed that important steps forward were being taken. In 1984, the UN adopted the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.   That Convention has become one of the most universally ratified of all international conventions and was championed by the United States with strong bi-partisan support.  President Reagan signed the Convention in 1988 and it was approved for ratification by the U.S. Senate in 1990 with the support of President George H.W. Bush.  In 1994, the prohibition against torture became the law of the land and a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison or in some instances by life imprisonment or death.

Yet, the false debate surrounding torture’s use and effectiveness has resurfaced in the United States.

In light of the renewed attention, every public figure—and indeed, every American—should know the facts about torture.

Torture is illegal.  Torture is a crime under both international and domestic law. The ban against torture is absolute. There are no exceptions or justifications for its use. It’s not allowed in a time of war, national emergency, or in the name of national security. Torture is a crime of such severity that it is considered an affront to all of humanity. As such, it can be prosecuted by any nation regardless of where the crime was committed or the accused person’s nationality or citizenship. Debate about waterboarding has been a frequent topic in the news lately, but make no mistake: waterboarding is torture. Waterboarding goes beyond the fear of suffocation—it is a form of slow, controlled drowning tantamount to a mock execution. The act of waterboarding involves strapping someone down, immobilizing them, and then pouring water over their face to begin the process of asphyxiation or drowning. Survivors say mock executions left them feeling they were already dead—many relive these near-death experiences in their nightmares or flashbacks. At CVT, survivors tell us they pleaded with their torturers to kill them, preferring actual death over the constant threat and intolerable pain caused by mock executions.

Prolonged isolation, extreme sensory or sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques can also create severe physical or psychological pain or suffering that they amount to torture or cruel treatment.

In 2009, President Obama signed an executive order banning waterboarding and other forms of torture and cruelty. And in November 2015, led by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), an overwhelming bi-partisan majority of Congress enshrined key elements of that executive order into U.S. law.

President Obama’s refusal to prosecute perpetrators of torture no doubt undermines the public’s understanding that torture is a crime.

Torture is ineffective.  CVT has extended rehabilitative care to more than 30,000 survivors of torture and brutal war-related atrocities from countries around the world. Time and again, our clients tell us that they would—and did—say anything to make the torture stop. This is true for victims subjected to physical torture as well as psychological torture. It has been proven that torture is far more likely to produce ambiguous and false, rather than clear and reliable, information.  A key finding of the Senate Intelligence Committee Study on CIA Detention and Interrogation Program was that the CIA’s so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques were not effective.”  That same Study also describes how the CIA itself determined from its own experience that coercive interrogations “do not produce intelligence,” “will probably result in false answers,” and had historically proven to be ineffective.    

Torture is immoral. Torture is a deliberate and systematic dismantling of a person’s identity and humanity through extreme physical or psychological pain and suffering. Imagine a family member, a neighbor or an American soldier being subjected to the horrors of mock executions or “rectal feeding.”  All for no reason other than to assert control, break their will and render them helpless.

I suspect some people use the term “enhanced interrogation techniques” to mask or justify a deliberate dismantling of a person’s humanity, or the systematic infliction of pain and suffering. But this euphemism doesn’t make torture any less abhorrent or any more morally acceptable. Torture is torture. And it’s absolutely immoral.

Torture makes us less safe.  Some have argued that the use of torture somehow protects us as a society, somehow makes the American public more safe. There is absolutely no convincing evidence that these assertions are true. In fact the evidence indicates the opposite is far more likely.  In resorting to torture of security suspects, the U.S. has strengthened the resolve of adversaries.  It also alienates partners and puts the U.S. in the company of human rights violators whose actions we deplore and condemn.

It was alarming to me that a 2015 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of Americans say the use of torture is justified! That is a higher percentage than almost any other country among the 38 nations surveyed. Torture is a crime, and is never justified. It is a crime for all the right reasons. And I firmly believe that when the facts about torture are repeated and reported as often as the headline-grabbing stories about reviving its use, Americans will unite in saying, “No More.”

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