The recent release of Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty has sparked a lot of controversy, due to its graphic depiction of the torture of terrorism detainees by CIA agents in the years following 9/11. Questions have arisen as to whether it is in some way ‘normalising’ such terrible acts (which are now known to have been a policy of the CIA at the time), or by showing them as effective in finding Osama Bin Laden, providing some kind of endorsement. Wherever you stand on that (and you’ll have to endure some pretty gruelling scenes before you can make the decision), the debate has perhaps more importantly brought to light divided opinions on the issue of torture itself which need to be addressed.
Torture is prohibited in multiple international treaties, specifically through the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which entered into force in 1987 and currently has 153 states parties. The prohibition is also a ‘jus cogens’ norm of international law, meaning no derogations are permitted and it applies at all times and in all circumstances.
However, despite this near universal formal recognition of the wrongfulness of torture, it has been creeping back into state practice in recent years, in large part under the vague heading of the ‘war on terror’. This resurgence is made even more worrying by the fact that the states partaking in it are those often claiming to be at the forefront of human rights.
Everyone is of course now familiar with the infamous Guantanamo Bay, and the extensive (and government condoned) use of waterboarding and other ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ by US agents there, and in numerous other detention facilities. Various countries including the UK have also been accused of participating in or facilitating these practices, often through extraordinary rendition. Unfortunately, the proposed inquiry into UK participation which should have enabled accountability and amends was shelved by the Government last year, a move which was condemned by several organisations including Amnesty, Reprieve, Liberty and Freedom from Torture.
However, appalling as the acts of US and UK governments have been, torture is of course a global problem. It is often a tool used by oppressive governments to create an atmosphere of terror among their people and crush dissent. This is most recently demonstrated by the use of torture in the Libyan revolution, and in the current conflict in Syria. Human Rights Watch has released reports on the widespread use of torture in Syria, including this map of ‘torture centres’ currently operating in the state, put together from the disturbing accounts of survivors. The high number of asylum seekers from all over the world entering the UK and other countries each year fleeing torture only further demonstrates the scale of the abuse.
Torture, whether used as punishment, to invoke fear or during interrogation, is the total destruction of a human being. Of course it does not always result in death, but its purpose is to humiliate and inflict severe pain until a person is ‘broken’. Survivors of torture are not only left with physical scars and disabilities, but also serious mental health problems which can leave them unable to re-engage with life and lead to suicide. To inflict this type of suffering upon a person for whatever purpose is not only sadistic, but it degrades the entire nature and basis of our human rights principles. Not to mention the fact that it is rarely effective in providing accurate information to interrogators.
Some people try to justify the practice under the so-called ‘ticking bomb scenario’, and this may be where the conflicted views on torture in our society stem from – if we had to torture one person to gain information on the whereabouts of a bomb that would kill many innocent people, couldn’t we justify it there?
The answer has to be no. Not only is this scenario practically impossible (there is no way of knowing if the information will be given or correct for one thing), but attempts to justify torture on this basis miss the true purpose behind its prohibition. Preventing the use of torture is key to protecting the basic human dignity of all individuals, and recognising that all humans have a right to be treated as such. If we lose sight of this principle, or attempt to justify exceptions, we risk the foundations of all human rights.
If we are to take anything from the media controversy in the past few weeks, it should be the opportunity to examine our views on the abuses inflicted by torture, and why in the past 10 years we have allowed important values to be eroded. Whether or not a blockbuster ‘normalises’ torture should be of much less concern than whether, as a society, we have become willing to accept its use for whatever greater cause the perpetrator may claim.