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Article I of the UN Convention Against Torture defines torture as any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for the purpose of obtaining information or a confession, as punishment for a behavior or suspected behavior, as a means of intimidation or coercion, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind.
Integral to the UN definition of torture is the notion of the instrumental infliction of pain and suffering under state authority. Under such a legalistic definition, torture is a means to an end, and if they were not expressly excluded, many state-authorized punishments might be characterized as torture. Indeed, many of the punishments of bygone days, including most forms of corporal punishment and many early methods of execution, are considered torture today.
In its general usage, the term torture refers more broadly to the infliction of severe pain and suffering, and the purpose of its infliction may be more expressive (e.g., sadistic) than instrumental.
Uses of Torture
Torture has been used as a means of state repression and control through the ages. It has been used to intimidate enemies, punish wrongdoers and dissidents, extract information, and terrorize. Though at times an end in and of itself, torture frequently came as a prelude to execution, prolonging the process. Burning at the stake, drawing and quartering, and stoning to death were all methods of execution that involved the infliction of prolonged pain and suffering. Often described as a way of increasing the deterrent value of the death penalty, some have argued that additional pain and suffering inflicted on the body of the person subject to execution served principally to attract and excite a sadistic and bloodthirsty mob. Executions, particularly those that incorporated torture and prolonged death, were by many accounts well-attended spectacles.
Although often depicted as the purview of less civilized nations, the use of torture has been documented in countries that routinely decry it as a barbaric practice. The United States, Great Britain, and Israel have been implicated in scandals around the use of torture.
Although individual acts of torture are occasionally exposed and often described as isolated incidents, acts of torture sometimes indicate broad-based, though clandestine, policies. Many of those accused of inflicting the excessive pain and suffering in these “isolated” acts of torture claim to have been acting under orders of superiors and in doing so frequently implicate those at the highest levels of government.
Physical and Psychological Torture
There are almost as many methods of torture as there are conceivable ways of inflicting pain and suffering. Some methods require elaborate devices, while others require little more than crude objects to inflict pain and suffering. Physical torture techniques that involve, for example, mutilation, burning, electric shock, or exposure to extreme conditions might be described as archetypal torture tactics. Physical torture typically leaves remnant scarring and other evidence of the pain and suffering endured.
Psychological torment reaching the level of torture may be practiced as frequently as its more infamous physical counterpart and likely has many of the same short-term and long-term effects. Psychological methods, which leave less visible scars and seem less ominous to those who have never experienced them, may in fact be used more frequently than physical methods, particularly in interrogative environments. Common psychological methods of torture include sensory deprivation or overstimulation, prolonged sleep deprivation, and extended periods of confinement in dark or confined spaces.
Utility of Torture
Where the goal of torture is simply to impose pain and suffering, torture can easily achieve those ends, but where the goal is to elicit information, the utility of torture is debatable. While some argue that under duress people will say anything, others point to cases in which the use of torture has produced actionable intelligence that might have otherwise gone undisclosed. Still others argue that torture is of questionable effectiveness in securing reliable general confessions, but might be more effective in eliciting specific information.
International Law Prohibiting Torture
Regardless of its utility, torture is a tactic that is universally condemned and internationally criminalized.
Torture is explicitly or implicitly prohibited in Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, and most explicitly addressed in the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (usually referred to simply as the Convention Against Torture, or CAT).
The CAT was initially drafted in 1975, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1984, and entered into force on June 26, 1987. As of 2004, there were 74 signatories and 136 state parties to the CAT. The United States became a signatory to the CAT in 1988, ratifying the CAT in 1994.
In addition to defining and unconditionally prohibiting torture in all its forms and guises, the CAT established a 10-person Committee Against Torture that meets twice annually in Geneva and is charged with monitoring compliance with the convention. State parties to the CAT must submit an initial report within one year and periodic reports every 4 years to the Committee Against Torture. The ICCPR and CAT each also regard the prohibition against torture as absolute: there are no exceptions and no exigent circumstances that justify the use of torture.
The Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions protect combatants and civilians, respectively, during times of war. Torture is considered a grave breach of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, is classified as a war crime, and can be prosecuted under international law. One hundred ninety-two countries, including the United States, have ratified all four of the Geneva Conventions. Alleged violations of the Geneva Conventions are investigated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The United States prohibits the use of torture by its agents through federal and military law as well. Federally, statute 18 U.S.C. § 2340A, prohibits the use of torture under color of law by U.S. personnel operating outside of the United States. The Uniform Code of Military Justice prohibits the use of degrading and inhumane punishment by military personnel. Neither of these prohibitions applies to pain and suffering incidental to lawful punishment.
- Kirk, M. (Producer). (2005, October 18). The torture question (Television series episode). In Frontline. Boston: WGBH Educational Foundation.
- Mannix, D. P. (2003). The history of torture. Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton.
- Scott, G. R. (2003). History of torture throughout the ages. London: Kegan Paul International.
- Spierenburg, P. (1984). The spectacle of suffering. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
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