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Why Torture Must Not Be Sanctioned By The United States

The debate about what is or isn’t torture and whether or not torture can ever be justified, is heating up. This very important debate goes to the very heart of who we are and what we stand for... Get involved.

Why Torture Must Not Be Sanctioned By The United States:
It undermines our humanity and does not make society safer

by Vincent Iacopino, Senior medical consultant, Allen Keller, Director, and Deborah Oksenberg, Medical Director

In the wake of September 11th, many people in the United States believe that torture is justifiable in the name of national security. A recent public opinion poll indicated that one in three Americans believe government-sanctioned torture of suspected terrorists is an acceptable means of gatheringinformation.1 As physicians, we have spent our professional lives documenting medical evidence of torture and caring for torture survivors. In the course of our work, we have encountered hundreds of individuals who have suffered unspeakable pain and degradation at the hands of government authorities throughout the world. Our experiences documenting the effects of these practices have clearly shown us that torture does not make any one person or society safer or more secure.


The Geneva Convention is one in a series of agreements first formulated at an international convention held in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1864, establishing rules for the treatment of prisoners of war, the sick, and the wounded.

With regard to the humane treatment of Prisoners of war the Geneva Convention states the following:

Article 13

Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. Any unlawful act or omission by the Detaining Power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited, and will be regarded as a serious breach of the present Convention. In particular, no prisoner of war may be subjected to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments of any kind which are not justified by the medical, dental or hospital treatment of the prisoner concerned and carried out in his interest.

Likewise, prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.

Measures of reprisal against prisoners of war are prohibited.

With regard to torture the Geneva Convention states:

Article 17

No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.

Click here to read the entire document.

The notion that torture can be a rational act that serves a just purpose is a fiction that "rational" minds construct to conceal base human emotions. Examples of such constructions have surfaced in the media in the form of "ticking-bomb scenarios," "torture warrants," and the "lesser-of-two-evils"rationale.2,3,4But when perpetrators of torture inflict extreme pain on their victims, they reduce their victims to a point that precludes obtaining reliable" information." Victims then falsely confess to whatever their torturers want to hear.

Torture is "a form of savagery and stupidity." The real aim of torture is the display of power, albeit a fictional one, through the medium of broken bodies and minds. By committing extreme acts of violence, torturers send a message of fear and intimidation to entire communities of perceived enemies. We agree with Hannah Arendt that violence does not necessarily require power or authority, but depends upon access to the implements or tools necessary to enforce one's will.

Those currently arguing in the abstract for torture only under "special circumstances" or with "humane limitations" know little of the horror they are prescribing. Such irresponsible fantasies are wholly inconsistent with the reality of the torturer's deeds that have been indelibly imprinted on the bodies and minds of the hundreds of survivors we have come to know. We sincerely doubt that advocates of torture have ever touched the wounds of people like Mr S, a suspected terrorist whose legs were crushed by police in India, causing permanent deformity and to this day serving as a daily reminder of his abuse; or witnessed the intense shame and devastating social rejection experienced by Ms R, an Ethiopian student, who was raped in front of her father. We have. And whereas survivors of torture can and do rebuild their lives, the process of overcoming the torturer's deeds is often a life-long challenge.

Torture cannot be applied like the edge of a surgeon's blade, as some would have us think. It is a weapon of mass destruction that kills the very foundations of democracy, the rule of law, and-inevitably-our humanity. States that use torture undermine their own authority and legitimacy. In the case of the United States, any form of sanctioning torture would escalate its already widespread use and its attendant destabilizing effects. As public members of past US delegations to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, we have condemned the practice of torture on behalf of this country (Iacopino V. US statement on torture. Presented to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Review Conference, Istanbul, Turkey; November 9, 1999; Keller A. US statement on torture. Presented to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Review Conference, Warsaw, Poland; October 30, 1998). How sadly ironic it would be, now, for the United States to join the ranks of the countries it has long condemned for this practice.

Increasingly, health professionals have recognized the health consequences of human rights violations and have worked to protect and promote humanrights. During the past 20 years, physicians have and continue to play a crucial role in the documentation of torture and treatment of survivors. However, in countries where torture and ill treatment are common, the coercion of health professionals to misrepresent, neglect, or falsify medical evidence of torture and ill treatment is often an important element of states' denials of the existence of theseabuses.9 As physicians, we cannot be silent witnesses to the practice of torture, and to physician participation in torture, anymore than we can turn a blind eye to calls for legally sanctioned torture in the United States.

Recent media attention on the possible use of torture may seem benign at this time, but this is hardly the case. To consider acts that the world has deemed unjustifiable under any circumstance should be profoundly disturbing to us all. We understand and support the imperative of human freedoms, including the freedom of speech. We understand and share the sense of unmitigated rage toward those who have brutally erased the lives of fellow human beings. But torture is not the answer. Torture will never serve the interests of justice because it undermines our worth and humanity. The rage that we now see masquerading as public discourse should be held in check. It should be transformed into words and deeds that are worthy of public interest and debate. We must move the debate forward in ways that dignify us all.

The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment an international human rights instrument, under the review of the United Nations, that aims to prevent torture around the world.

The Convention requires states to take effective measures to prevent torture within their borders, and forbids states to return people to their home country if there is reason to believe they will be tortured. The Convention defines torture as:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

- Convention Against Torture, Article 1.1

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