The U.S. Torture Report Highlights Problems Faced in Global Fight to End Torture and Impunity

By Rebecca Cordell. You can follow Rebecca on twitter: @RebeccaCordell

As International Human Rights Day comes to an end, tremors from the United States’ release of the highly anticipated Torture Report dominate news and social media sites across the world. Whilst this year’s international human rights day theme Rights 365 embodies the notion that every day is human rights day for every person around the world, Tuesday’s unveiling of the Torture Report reminds us of how far this ideal is from the truth. Laying bare the systematic violation of human rights perpetrated by the United States and it’s allies during the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme post-911, many were left horrified by the severity and extensiveness of the torturous practices detailed in the report including water boarding; rectal rehydration and feeding; sexual abuse; stress positions; forced nudity and restricted diets; confinement in a box; sleep deprivation; and mock executions.

Torture does not work

One key finding from the albeit highly contracted and edited report is that despite popular belief, the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques were hugely ineffective in gaining intelligence and that even in the most notorious success stories, there was often no causal relationship between the alleged counter-terrorism achievements and the interrogation process itself (see more,here). This comes as a major blow to those who have advocated for the necessary use of torture during the global war on terror in a ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario whereby, so the argument goes, torturing one individual in order to gain intelligence to save innocent lives is justified. On the other hand, for human rights practitioners and activists, this discovery is merely another empirical example that torture does not work.

Expected Impunity

The release of the Torture Report seems to mark the end of an era as complicit countries involved in the CIA rendition, secret detention and torture programme, join the United States in admitting publicly that what happened was wrong, shameful and can under no circumstances be repeated. However, many are skeptical that those responsible will be held to account for the gross violations of human rights detailed in the Torture Report – an integral part to any complete process of justice. Conversely, some are left debating the true intentions behind the release and timing of the report with reference to game playing by the Democratic party wishing to advance their own strategy for power and survival.

One could argue that in the context of human rights, we have good reason to be pessimistic and expect the perpetrators in this case to enjoy impunity given the ability of dominant powerful states to manipulate the international human rights forum through their material capabilities. To date the ICC has only seen officials from Africa tried and prosecuted and continues to face accusation of bias. In the international status quo it is powerful states such as the U.S. who refer senior officials for prosecution (in countries such as Libya and Sudan): they are not the ones who stand trial themselves. Although the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism hascalled for the prosecution of the crimes committed by the United States, those who campaign for a truly universal justice system are likely to be met with disappointment. This is a reality that the human rights community must continue to combat.

Never again?

Whilst the descriptions of torture detailed in the Torture Report has shocked many across the globe, torture is not somethingnew, and its practice is not restricted to so-called ‘non-democratic’ states. It is a global problem; a human problem and a crisis that has led human rights Non-Governmental Organisation Amnesty International to launch a worldwide Stop Torturecampaign this year. However, the release of the torture report shows that we need to rethink how we do human rights. The international prohibition of torture has jus cogens status, the highest status under international law, but this has failed to prevent torture in the US and around the world. The human rights movement must address this reality: we must rethink our approach.

When you consider the present hostile feelings towards groups such as ISIS and the psychological studies such as that of Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 – which demonstrate how easy seemingly normal individuals can become extremely abusive in nature if certain psychological and environmental hold – it would be naïve to suppose that it all ends here. This point is only exasperated for those military, medical and intelligence personnel who find themselves in a situation where torture is institutionalised, victims are dehumanised and orders come from the highest chain of command.

As former CIA detainees and survivors of torture have pointed out, if the United States and its allies are to have their remorse taken seriously and prevent instance like this reoccurring, it is crucial that all those responsible for the practice of torture during the global war on terror are held to account and prosecuted. Those in positions of power and authority must be made aware that the international prohibition of torture is a real prohibition, and as a human rights community, we must rethink our approach to the problem.


Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.


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