Science and Torture
Steven H. Miles, MD
[Archives of General Psychiatry. 2007;64]
Torture is illegal and practiced by more than half of the nations of the world. The United Nations Convention against Torture defines it as any “act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person . . . 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.”(1) Despite this clarity, torturing nations often contrive laws or rationalizations that attempt to excuse the abuse of disarmed captives as warfare or as merely vigorous interrogation, so called “torture lite.”
In its war on terror policies for “Counter Resistance” interrogations the United States defined words like “severe” or “intentional” in Convention Against Torture in ways that it had rejected when invoked by other countries defending their mistreatment of prisoners. It also proposed that there is a legally meaningful distinction between “torture” and a more permissible “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”(2) Article III of the Geneva Convention, which has been upheld by the United States Supreme Court in the Hamdan decision, takes a different view. The Convention simply includes torture in a list of acts that “are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever;” these include “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; . . . outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment.”(3) The Department of Justice created its definitions from dictionaries and legal precedents without referring to research showing the long lasting psychiatric, neurologic, social, occupational, and physical sequellae of torture. In 2004, in response to criticism from human rights advocates, the government slightly amended its interrogation techniques and selectively cited two clinical studies as noted by Dr. Başoğlu.(4) The recently enacted Military Commissions Act denies prisoners the right to invoke the provisions of the Geneva Convention and allows the President to interpret the requirements of international law.(5)
The distinction between “torture” and “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” is useless. Research, such as the United States’ extensive MK-ULTRA and MK-SEARCH studies found that stressful interrogations have diminished intelligence value. Misinformation elicited by pain may lead to mistakenly grounded policies or sorties that needlessly expose soldiers to hostile fire. Harsh interrogations radicalize prisoners and the populations from which they come, degrade the self image of the military, undermine national support for the government, make it difficult to recruit intelligence assets, and obtain information that is inadmissible at trial.(6) Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s own Working Group informed him of these research findings (7) before he authorized harsh Counter Resistance interrogations.(8)
The distinction between torture and degrading treatment is also dangerous. Başoğlu and his colleagues show that the severity of long lasting adverse mental effects is unrelated to whether the torture or degrading treatment is physical or psychological, and unrelated to objective measures of the severity of techniques. The wrongness of these inflicted harms is compounded by the fact that most abused prisoners, including those in the present war on terror, are innocent or ignorant of terrorist activities. Innocent or not, torture survivors rarely get the mental health treatment that they need. In addition, soldiers who participate in atrocities are themselves at increased risk of post traumatic stress disorder.(9)
Although torture is done to an individual; it is aimed at a society. Like terrorism, it is destructive of civil societies. It is often aimed at political targets, journalists, academics, labor organizers, and voices of moral authority with the aim of consolidating government power. The wish to promote civil societies is why the international community asserted that no appeal to national sovereignty could legalize torture.(10) Although the ideal of that assertion has not been realized, individual appeals for humane treatment by nations, professional societies and human rights groups regularly secure better conditions of confinement or even release from prison. On a larger scale, when citizens can and do apply political pressure to their own torturing governments, those nations move in the direction of complying with international law.(11) The grounding for these appeals and thus the imperfectly realized aspiration of laws against torture are being eroded by the events in the war on terror.
Human rights respecting nations must reestablish the authority of international law against torture. Medical societies, compromised by active or passive collaboration with harsh interrogations, must reclaim their moral authority to challenge torture domestically and abroad. The American Psychiatric Society has commendably dissociated itself from harsh interrogations. Eighteenth century Europe abandoned legal interrogational torture on the twin conclusions that it was an affront to human dignity and a poor way to acquire information. Empirical research such as this paper can help us find that persuasive holding ground again.
Notes (all links validated on October 29, 2006).
1. United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1987), http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/h_cat39.htm
2. Bybee JS. Standards of Conduct for Interrogation Under 18 USC. 2340-2340A. Aug. 1, 2002 http://fl1.findlaw.com/news.findlaw.com/nytimes/docs/doj/bybee80102mem.pdf
3. Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 1949, www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/91.htm
4. U.S. Justice Department Memorandum Deputy James B. Comey Deputy Attorney General Re: Legal standards applicable under 18 U.S.C. §§ 2340-2340A. December 30, 2004. http://www.usdoj.gov/olc/18usc23402340a2.htm
5. Military Commissions Act of 2006, Pub. L. No. 109-366, 120 Stat. 2600 (Oct. 17, 2006), http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?c109:5:./temp/~c109glHQDj::
6. Miles SH. Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity and the War on Terror. Random House, NY, 2006 p. 13-18.
7. Working Group Report on Detainee Interrogations in the Global War on Terrorism. Apr. 4, 2003. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB127/03.04.04.pdf
8. Secretary of Defense. Memorandum for the Commander, US Southern Command; Counter Resistance Techniques in the War on Terrorism. Apr. 16, 2003. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB127/03.04.16.pdf
9. MacNair RM. Perpetration-induced traumatic stress in combat veterans. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology 2002; 8:63-67.
10. Glendon MA. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York: Random House, 2002.
11. Hathaway OA. The Promise and Limits of the International Law of Torture. in Levinson, Sanford (ed). New York: Torture: A Collection. Oxford University Press, 2004, 199-212.