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Experts at AAAS Forum Say the U.S. Has Tortured War Prisoners
Some prisoners are stripped and threatened with ferocious dogs. Some are sexually humiliated. Some are deprived of sleep, and others are kept for long periods in isolation. Many are denied visits from family, lawyers and the International Red Cross. And in select cases, the prisoners simply disappear into a shadow-world of secret detention centers scattered around the globe.
Every new disclosure brings new questions about whether the United States, as it battles tyrants and terrorists while professing the cause of human rights, is violating those rights in order to obtain information and suppress opposition.
At a half-day forum on Monday 28 June, panelists convened by AAAS concurred that in fighting the war on terror and the war in Iraq, the United States had engaged in patterns of prisoner mistreatment that constitute torture. And, they warned, the mistreatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, at Guantanamo Bay in the Caribbean and at other detention centers clearly violates a series of international pacts, from the Geneva Conventions of 1949 to the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture.
"U.S. government officials practicing torture feel that the ends justify the means," said panelist Meredith Larson, who herself survived political violence in Guatemala and now serves as the campaigns associate for Amnesty International USA. But, she added: "What happened in Abu Ghraib is contrary to all basic laws of humanity."
The AAAS conference was part of a series of international activities to observe the United Nations' International Day in Support of Victims of Torture (June 26). This annual observance is intended to raise awareness about the prevalence of torture around the world and highlight the work of organizations in preventing torture practices and treating survivors of torture.
But the conference came at a time of acute controversy. In recent weeks, disclosures about mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. forces and contractorsincluding allegations of extreme psychological pressure, sexual abuse and murderhas provoked a passionate public debate on what constitutes torture, whether it is ever justified and whether the U.S. had crossed the line.
Officials in the administration of President George W. Bush at first argued that the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad were the work of a few rogue guards, but subsequent reports forced them to retreat from that claim. Then came a new disclosure: In a 2002 memo, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel advised that torture might be justified in some cases. The White House initially held that the memo was the work of a small number of government lawyers, but administration officials now say that it was reviewed in advance by the office of Attorney General John Ashcroft, by lawyers in the National Security Council and by the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.
In recent days, news reports disclosed that a variety of controversial interrogation techniquessleep deprivation, light- and noise-bombardment, and one that makes prisoners feel that they are suffocatinghave been suspended by federal officials.
In practical terms, the panelists said, the use of torture is ill-advised because it is notoriously unreliable. "Conditions in which individuals are held in dark, dank, cramped spaces with sleep deprivation can result in anxiety, paranoia, and delusional thoughtsnot the best circumstances for getting reliable information," said Allen Keller, M.D., program director of the Bellevue/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture.
But the problems arising from such tactics can reach far beyond the terror chamber.
"Authorizing, permitting or tolerating torture or acts that are inconsistent with the principles of international law, U.S. law, or our values as a country would have serious implications for our nation and for the international human rights system," conference organizer Audrey R. Chapman, director of science and human rights programs at AAAS, said before Monday's conference.
The panelists agreed that such implications are already unfolding, undermining the United States' credibility and moral authority around the globe. Panelist Robert Goldman, co-director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University in Washington, D.C., went further, saying the U.S. may have committed war crimes.
"As an occupying power, the U.S. was obliged to refrain from mistreating Iraqi nationals," Goldman said. "International law was applicable to all the territory of Iraq. This law applies to U.S. armed forces, CIA employees, civilian administrators and private contractors."
And yet the U.S. use of torture was predictable, said panelist Martha Huggins, the Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University. Huggins has conducted numerous studies of torture; her 2002 book, Violence Workers: Torturers and Murderers Reconstruct Brazilian Atrocities (U. Of California Press, with P. Zimbardo and Mika Haritos-Fatouros), brought her into close contact with police officers and assassins whose involvement in torture and killing date to Brazil's military period from 1964-1985.
Torture happens, she said, in times of fear, when governments invoke national security as an ideology. It happens when executive-level decisions make torture seem legitimate and responsibility for prisoner treatment is diffused. It happens in a climate of secrecy. And it is more likely to happen, Huggins said, when it is called by another name.
"In investigations of U.S. 'abuse' of imprisoned Iraqis, there has been reluctance to use the 'T' word, describing this violence as: 'degradation,' 'staging,' 'mistreatment,' 'tough interrogation,' all forms of violence apparently less than torture," she wrote in a text of her presentation. But after reviewing the variety of alleged abuses, she said: "These are the practices of torture. To claim that they are not, or to argue that it is difficult to distinguish torture from 'normal' interrogation, or that 'softening up' prisoners for interrogation is not torture, demonstrates a rhetorical pattern common to torture systems: Torture is seldom labeled 'torture'."
During a question and answer period, one person in the audience identified himself as a former military policeman and suggested the panel was presenting only one side of the argument. But what should happen, he asked, if terrorists warned of a nuclear device set to detonate in New York in two hours? If they apprehended suspects, might it not be justified to take extreme measures to induce them to talk if that might save millions of lives?
But Goldman insisted that torture would not be justified, and he said the question itself marks the top of the slippery slope. "If you authorize the use of torture in the case of the ticking bomb," he said, "then it will eventually work its way down to protected persons."
When a nation begins down that slippery slope, the panelists said, the damage is compounded because it sends a dark message to the world. "Decisions and actions made by the U.S. influence other countries' decisions and actions," said Larson.
Added Keller: "When the US practices torture, we risk elevating a worldwide epidemic or torture. When we condone this, we put countless individuals at risk."
AAAS has long been active in the human rights field. Its Science and Human Rights Program was established in 1977 to give scientists a way to help their colleagues around the world whose human rights are threatened or violated. Mobilizing effective assistance to protect the human rights of scientists worldwide remains central to its mission, as well as making the tools and knowledge of science available to benefit the field of human rights.
AAAS is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science. AAAS was founded in 1848, and serves 10 million people in 262 affiliated societies and academies of science.
Edward W. Lempinen & Monica Amarelo
29 June 2004
For background information on Meredith Larson's presentation, see a report on detainees in the Gulf and Guantanamo bay that came out on June 22 and focused largely on the effects on families of detainees.