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torture

torture, the intentional infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering in order to intimidate, coerce, obtain information or a confession, or punish. In international law, the term is usually further restricted to actions committed by persons acting in an official capacity.

The UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which came into force in 1987 and to which more than two thirds of the world's nations are parties, bans torture and other abusive treatment of any person, as well as forcibly transferring a person to a nation when there is reason to believe that the person will be tortured. Parties to the treaty must periodically report and answer questions on their compliance before the Committee against Torture in Geneva. The convention restates much of an earlier General Assembly declaration (1975), and the earlier Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966; in force, 1976) also banned torture. In addition, agreements sponsored by regional international organizations also forbid the practice, as do the Geneva Conventions. Despite these international agreements, Amnesty International indicated (2007) that there were reports of the use of torture or other forms of abuse by security or police forces in 102 nations in 2006.

The utility of torture in obtaining useful information from individuals is a matter of debate, and the arguments on both sides rely on anecdotal evidence. Torture is most often justified, even by those who oppose its use generally, in situations where interrogators seek to obtain information from a suspect who has knowledge of an imminent and devastating attack. Whether a terror suspect who had knowledge of a "ticking timebomb" would divulge any useful information under torture likely depends on the psychology of the suspect. That tortured individuals divulge false information is known to be true, and an instance of this was reported to have contributed to the Bush administration's belief that Iraq had helped train militant Islamic terrorists. Studies also have shown that extreme stress can detrimentally affect memory, suggesting that torture, especially if prolonged, might in fact impair recall.

The United States, which regularly denounces the use of torture and abuse internationally in the State Dept.'s well-regarded Human Rights Reports, found itself the object of international criticism when, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Justice Dept. and other administration legal officials construed international strictures against torture narrowly so as to expand the harsh techniques that could be used, especially by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), when interrogating suspected terrorists. Defense Dept. officials asserted (2003) that, as commander in chief, the president was not bound by the international commitments the United States had made concerning the use of torture and could approve any technique that would protect national security. U.S. government officials also argued that harsh treatment was not torture if an interrogator did not intend to torture a prisoner. Some have contended that such arguments directly contributed to reported abuses of terror suspects held at the Guantánamo Bay naval base and to notorious abuses of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison. The United States also has transferred lesser terror suspects for detention and interrogation to countries where those suspects were citizens even when those countries were listed in State Dept. reports as using torture, although U.S. officials ostensibly have obtained guarantees against the use of torture in such cases.

U.S. officials subsequently (2004) issued guidelines that called torture abhorrent and retreated on many points from earlier memorandums, but it remained unclear to what degree Bush administration considered the CIA to be bound by U.S. law and international agreements. Revelations concerning Bush administration memorandums and practices led Senator John McCain, who had himself been tortured while a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, to seek (2005) legislation banning cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of terror suspects in U.S. custody, no matter where they are held. It was reported in 2007 that in 2005 the Justice Dept. secretly approved the use of harsh interrogation tactics, including simulated drowning ("waterboarding"), by the CIA. In 2009 it was reported that that the treatment of at least one person held at Guantánamo Bay had met the legal definition of torture and that a secret 2007 International Committee of the Red Cross report had concluded that CIA treatment of some detainees constituted torture. In 2008 President Bush vetoed legislation that would have required the CIA to adhere to U.S. army interrogation standards, but in 2009 President Obama banned any methods that could be considered torture.

See K. J. Greenberg and J. L. Dratel, ed., The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib (2005); D. Rejali, Torture and Democracy (2007); J. Jaffer and A. Singh, Administration of Torture: A Documentary Record from Washington to Abu Ghraib and Beyond (2007); A. M. Dershowitz, Is There a Right To Remain Silent?: Coercive Interrogation and the Fifth Amendment After 9/11 (2008); M. Cohn, ed., The United States and Torture (2011); R. M. Palitto, ed., Torture and State Violence in the United States (2011).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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