For U.S. Policy, Torture is Never Acceptable


In the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld launched two military campaigns: one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. While the debate rages about the effectiveness and appropriateness of these military incursions, one legacy remains largely unaddressed: the use of torture by the United States.

The use of torture to gain intelligence is never acceptable. Torture is prohibited under domestic laws of most countries in the international system. It is also prohibited under international law. Torture is considered a human rights violation according to Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, and under the United Nations Convention Against Torture. There is no scientific evidence to support claims that torture is an effective interrogation tool.

Cheney authorized the use of torture (including waterboarding) as a way to gain intelligence. He readily admits authorizing these techniques in interviews with various news organizations, recognizing full well that the use of torture violates the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention on Torture — documents that the U.S. is a party to.

Cheney was not alone in his advocacy of the use of torture. As Professor of Law Majorie Cohn says, “Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also participated in the highest level of decision-making that sanctioned the extrajudicial execution of high valued operatives.” In his Special Access Program (SAP), Rumsfeld authorized the Defense Department to “set up a clandestine team of special forces to snatch and/or assassinate anyone considered a 'high value' Al-Qaeda operative anywhere in the world.” 

Willful killing such as that described in SAP is a direct breach of the Geneva Conventions, which characterizes willful killing as a war crime. Rumsfeld also sanctioned the use of torture, as well as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of captives to gain what he deemed “important intelligence.” Use of dogs, removal of clothing, hooding, stress positions, isolation for up to 30 days, 20-hour interrogations, waterboarding, deprivation of light and auditory stimuli, use of physical coercion, and sexual humiliation were common methods to extract information from prisoners. 

The law is clear. Torture is illegal under international law. Article 3 of the Geneva Convention states that all manner of murder, mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture are prohibited at any time or place whatsoever. The United Nations Convention on Torture prohibits the use of torture for obtaining information or a confession or as a source of punishment for any act.  

Fearing that the law might be used to prosecute military personnel or government officials or be used to settle a political score, the U.S. government has rejected adherence to international law and the rulings of the International Criminal Court, the first legal tribunal established to prosecute war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. 

While several attempts have been made by the international community to charge both Cheney and Rumsfeld with war crimes, they have been undermined by U.S. rhetoric that claims that these issues will be dealt with domestically — a claim that was never realized. To allow the U.S. to continue to abdicate its responsibilities to international law and to the standards of treatment of detainees is inexcusable.

Even former POW Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) understood the importance of respecting international law in this realm: “Torture did not lead to Osama bin Laden.”

Photo Credit: takomabibelot