As long as torture continues to exist in the world, we are barbarians. As long as torture exists, humanity cannot claim to have achieved any level of civilization. We are no further along than when when we worshipped kings as gods, practiced slavery, burned women for witchery, and died of diseases like tuberculosis and the plague. All that we have accomplished as a species, all the technological innovation and scientific learning, is meaningless as long as human beings continue to suffer in dark and hidden cells, beaten and electrocuted and quietly disappeared, while the rest of us go about our daily lives as if nothing extraordinary has happened.
On December 10, 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 5 states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”[6] Since that time a number of other international treaties have been adopted to prevent the use of torture. Two of these are the United Nations Convention Against Torture, adopted on December 10, 1984; and for international conflicts the Geneva Conventions III and IV.
The convention against torture has been ratified by 145 nations. In addition, the domestic laws of most countries outlaw torture.
And yet, Amnesty International estimates that at least 81 world governments currently practice torture, some openly.
The Ineffectiveness of Torture
The Inhumanity of Torture

A fifteenth century tribunal using ropes to elicit a confession in this engraving from a painting by A. Steinheil. This method of torture is still in common use today.

A fifteenth century tribunal using ropes to elicit a confession in this engraving from a painting by A. Steinheil. This method of torture is still in common use today.

We are Barbarians

by Wael Abdelgawad

As long as systematic, government-practiced torture continues to exist in the world, all of us are barbarians. As long as torture exists, humanity cannot claim to have achieved any level of civilization. We are no further along than when when we worshipped kings as gods, believed the earth to be the center of the universe, practiced slavery, burned women for witchery, and died of diseases like leprosy and the plague. Torture is no less backward and primitive – in fact it is worse – than any of those.

We have landed spacecraft on Mars, mapped the human genome, and with medical advances we are on the verge of curing age-old diseases such as cancer, alzheimers and parkinson’s. Hey, in Japan they have heated toilets, so that you don’t have to sit on a cold toilet seat in winter. A four-foot robot named ASIMO climbed the steps and rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. On Google Earth you can view satellite images of any city around the world. My palm-sized external hard drive holds hundreds of gigabytes of data, enough to fill a small library. Hooray for progress!

And yet scores of nations around the world commonly torture and murder people for expressing political thought, committing petty crimes, for suspicion or association, or just belonging to the wrong ethnic group.

All that we have accomplished as a species, all the technological innovation and scientific learning, is meaningless as long as human beings continue to suffer in dark and hidden cells, beaten and electrocuted and quietly disappeared, to be dumped in trenches and unmarked graves, while the rest of us go about our daily lives as if nothing extraordinary has happened, not bothering even to speak out, to contact our leaders and legislators, or to write to our media to express our outrage. So-called first-world governments go to war over resources, but consider genocide and torture to be insufficient reasons to bother even with sanctions. Maybe because they too are guilty.

What Progress Have We Made?

For hundreds of years now, human leaders and intellectuals and condemned and spoken against torture.

Johann Graefe in 1624 published Tribunal Reformation, a case against torture. Cesare Beccaria, and Italian lawyer, published in 1764 “An Essay on Crimes and Punishments”, in which he argued that torture unjustly punished the innocent and should be unnecessary in proving guilt. Torture was abolished by Frederick the Great in Prussia in 1740. Italy followed suit in 1786, followed by France in 1789 and Russia in 1801.

On December 10, 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 5 states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Since that time a number of other international treaties have been adopted to prevent the use of torture. Two of these are the United Nations Convention Against Torture, adopted on December 10, 1984 and eventually ratified by 145 nations; and for international conflicts the Geneva Conventions III and IV.

In addition, the domestic laws of most countries outlaw torture.

And yet, Amnesty International estimates that scores of governments around the world currently practice torture, some openly.

An article in the Harvard Human Rights Journal points out that (emphasis added by me):

Amnesty International’s Annual Report of 1999 provides the following statistics relating to torture and ill-treatment: in the sub-Saharan African region, some thirty-three countries provide evidence of torture or ill-treatment by state operatives, and twenty countries are implicated in deaths attributable to torture, ill-treatment, or negligence through inhuman and degrading prison conditions. In the Middle East and North Africa, at least eighteen countries reveal evidence of torture or ill-treatment, and at least eight countries show evidence of deaths resulting from torture, ill-treatment, or inhuman and degrading prison conditions. In Europe, there were reports of people tortured or ill-treated by state operatives in some thirty-one countries; death in custody is confirmed or suspected in at least six countries. In the Americas, twenty-one countries practice torture or ill-treatment, and deaths attributable to torture or inhuman and degrading prison conditions occurred in at least six countries. In the Asia-Pacific region, at least twenty-two countries report torture or various forms of ill-treatment by state operatives; deaths from ill-treatment or torture are indicated in at least eleven countries.

Statistics on torture show that during 1998, no less than 125 countries reportedly tortured people. Furthermore, torture or ill-treatment, lack of medical care, and cruel, inhuman, or degrading prison conditions resulted in deaths in fifty-one countries. These statistics are quite shocking considering that torture and ill-treatment are most often committed by governmental officials, who knew or should have known that the law prohibited their acts of torture or ill-treatment. Even more disquieting is the knowledge that the practice of torture is often among the least transparent aspects of governmental policy and practice. Amnesty International’s numbers may simply reflect the tip of the iceberg.

The Evolution of Modern Torture

In 2000, human rights group Amnesty International and African social sciences organization CODESRIA published a handbook for watchdog groups monitoring prisons where torture is suspected. The book lists the most common forms of torture used today (the following summary has been largely reprinted from an article at HowStuffWorks.com):

  1. Beatings. One study (published in the Danish Medical Bulletin in 2006) of 69 refugees found that 97 percent of survivors reported being beaten at the hands of their captors. Beating torture can be as simple as punching, slapping or kicking a victim. Beatings may come spontaneously, or in conjunction with other methods. Tibetans held in Chinese prisons in the 1980s and 1990s reported suffering combinations of torture, including beatings and electric shock [source: Government of Tibet in Exile]. Beatings may also be delivered via instruments like hoses, belts, bamboo shoots, batons and other blunt weapons.
  2. Electrotorture. Electric shock torture methods haven’t been around as long as many other widely used methods — humans didn’t figure out how to harness electricity until the late 19th century. Once established, however, electricity soon came into use as a method of torture. Electrical shocks can be delivered using stun guns, cattle prods and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) devices. This type of torture can be as crude as introducing a current to a victim via a cattle prod or other device designed to deliver a shock attached to a car battery. Shocks are used as a torture method because they’re cheap and effective. One 22-year-old Chechen survivor recounts being tortured with electricity at the hands of Russian military personnel: “They gave me electric shock under my fingernails and under the nails of my little toes so later I had to have the nails removed from my fingers and toes” [source: Amnesty International Danish Medical Group]. What’s more, shocks leave behind little obvious physical trace of the agony they produce. One expert suggests, “Torturers favor electric torture because it leaves no marks other than small burns that, one can allege, were simply self-inflicted.”
  3. Sexual Assault. Rape is a common form of torture, especially during wartime. Rape of men, women and children has occurred during conflicts across the globe. In the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, Muslim Bosnian women were subjected to systematic rape at the hands of Serb soldiers. In the Congo, from 2000 to 2006 alone, more than 40,000 women and children were raped [source: The Guardian, “The Spoils of War”, March 2006]. In Rwanda in the early 1990s, an estimated 25,000 women were raped. Soldiers reportedly told their victims that they were “allowed to live so that [they] will die of sadness” [source: The Guardian].  Both men and women may suffer sexual assault. Whether the assaulter uses his or her body to inflict harm or brandishes a device to penetrate the victim’s body, the act is constituted as rape. What’s more, experts believe estimates of the number of men who’ve endured rape torture are low: “Men tend to underreport experiences of sexual violence. They may have doubts about their sexuality and fear infertility, and both sexes commonly experience sexual difficulties following sexual violence and may need reassurance about sexual function” [source: Burnett and Peel, BMJ.com].
  4. Hanging by Limbs. During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong employed a form of torture called “the ropes.” In “Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress: From the Holocaust to Vietnam,” the book’s authors describe this type of torture many American servicemen faced after capture, explaining, “Although there were many variations of this torture, it usually took the form of tying the elbows behind the back and tightening them until they touched or arching the back with a rope stretched from the feet to the throat” [source: Wilson, et al]. The tension created in the muscles by this extreme tightening –exacerbated by hanging victims from their limbs — can cause lasting nerve damage. Dissident Turkish national Gulderen Baran was tortured by police when she was in her early 20s. In addition to other forms of torture, she was hung by her arms, both on a wooden cross and from her wrists bound behind her. Baran suffered long-term damage to her arms, losing strength and movement in one arm, and the other suffering total paralysis [source: Amnesty International].
  5. Mock Executions. A mock execution is any situation in which a victim feels that his or her death   — or the death of another person — is imminent or has taken place. It could be as hands-off as verbally threatening a detainee’s life, or as dramatic as blindfolding a victim, holding an unloaded gun to the back of his or her head and pulling the trigger. Any clear threat of impending death falls into the category of mock executions. Water boarding, the method of simulated drowning, is an example of mock execution. The U.S. Army Field Manual expressly prohibits soldiers from staging mock executions [source: Levin]. But reports of some U.S. military members staging these executions have emerged from the Iraq War. In 2005, one Iraqi man questioned for stealing metal from an armory was tortured by being asked to choose one of his sons to die for his crime. When his son was taken around a building, out of the man’s sight, he was led to believe that the son had been executed when he heard gun shots fired. Two years earlier, two Army personnel were investigated for staging mock executions. In one circumstance, an Iraqi was taken to a remote area and made to dig his own grave, and soldiers pretended he would be shot [source: AP]. Other nations also make use of mock executions. The effects of such threats on the victim’s life are deep and lasting: The Center for Victims of Torture say torture victims who’ve undergone mock executions reported flashbacks, “feeling as if they’ve already died,” and said they begged their tormentors to kill them to avoid further constant threat.

Regarding number four, hanging by limbs, this reminds me of a report by Human Rights Watch on torture in Egypt. I read the report last year. Egypt is of particular interest to me because I am of Egyptian origin, though I have never lived there.  HRW describes beatings, rape and hanging by limbs as the most common forms of torture in Egyptian police stations. Victims are often hung by their arms from the top of a door, with a bag of cement tied to their feet to stretch them out and cause extreme pain. Torture has become ubiquitous in Egypt and is carried out with total impunity. Egyptian police have become experts at torture and are often borrowed by other Arab nations to teach torture methods.

This is something that Egypt shares in common with my nation of citizenship, the United States, which has also innovated many torture techniques and taught them to nations throughout the world. In fact, as far as I know, the USA is the only nation to set up an actual school of torture for police and military of other nations (the infamous School of the Americas in Georgia, renamed but still in operation).

Darius Rejali wrote in an article in the Boston Globe on December 16, 2007, titled “Torture, American style”:

For centuries, the whip was the preferred tool of state torture, and some were nastier than others. The Great Russian Knout, for example, had a hook on the end of it that tore out chunks of flesh with each blow. Even the Nazis, well into the era of modern torture, favored whips, as they scarred their way across thousands of victims in prisons and concentration camps during World War II.

In recent times states have outlawed open spectacles of torture, and torture has ceased to be an exhibit of kingly power. But its basic uses remain the same: extracting information, forcing false confessions, and keeping prisoners docile and compliant.

So torture hasn’t really disappeared in the modern age. What have disappeared are forms of torture that leave marks. The police, military investigators, and governments in democratic societies can count on the press and people watching. They know that if a prisoner can’t show any marks of torture, people are far less likely to believe his or her story. So as societies have become more open, the art of torture has crept underground and evolved into the chilling new forms – often undetectable – that define torture today.

Rejali goes on to describe how sophisticated and ubiquitous electroshock torture has become, and the central role that Western democracies (particularly the United States and France) have played post-WWII in innovating non-scarring forms of torture that are easier to hide, and teaching those methods to allied governments. These include electrotorture, forced standing for extended periods, waterboarding, psychological tortures, and sexual abuse.

Torture is not an isolated crime occuring in one or two backward nations. It is not restricted to petty dictatorships and banana republics. It is not associated with one particular economic system (e.g. communism vs. capitalism or the free market), one particular ethnic group, or one particular religion. It is a pervasise and systematic global crime, committed both secretly and openly. It is a global shame, a shame upon the entire human race.

The ancient Romans, who routinely employed torture and often savagely whipped victimes with barbed lashes prior to crucifixion, would have been proud of us. The ancient Egyptians, who employed sun-death; the ancient Jews, who used stoning; the Dominican friars of Spain who were notorious for their torture innovations during the inquisition; all would have nodded their head in approval of today’s torture techniques.

You are a barbarian. I am a barbarian. Until systematic, condoned torture is abolished once and for all, and relagated to the dark days of the past like slavery and the bubonic plague, we are all savages. We are still in the Dark Ages. Future generations will look back and see us as a primitive and beastly people, and they will be right.

These problems are not unsolvable. We are a species with intelligence and the ability to be compassionate. We have to come to an agreement that torture is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Leaders who condone it should be voted out of office (in democratic nations), and replaced with leaders who do not tolerate torture and can apply pressure to those nations that do, rather than work with them clandestinely to perpetuate it. Those who commit torture should be prosecuted. We need to join and support organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

These problems can be solved but it requires commitment and determination on our part. And it won’t happen overnight.