by Jim Beauregard
In a previous blog, I mentioned bringing to bear of a new resource in the argument against torture: the resource of neuroscience and understanding of what torture does of the brain and how it acts in a manner opposite two what proponents of torture claim is their goal – to obtain information from detainees to prevent future attacks. I noted two recent books that touched on this subject, one by James Mitchell, an American psychologist who helped to design the Bush administration interrogation program, and one by the Irish neuroscientist Shane O’Mara. I want to say a bit about both of these books in this blog as I think they deserve attention from personalist thinkers as part of a wider argument against the use of torture. I also want to suggest that thinkers of a personalist bent we put some of their time to good use in arguing against any future use of torture.
There is, of course, a context and history. Torture has been used as a method of interrogation and as a method of punishment for thousands of years. the 20th century, one of the most barbarous, if not the most barbarous in human history, prompted many nations to come together in the United Nations enter work for a more just and peaceful world. As part of that process, they articulated documents that touched on human rights and on the conduct of warfare. These documents touch on fundamental issues that personal is have dealt with from the interwar period of the 20th century two today, issues that touch on the nature of the human person, of ethics, of human rights and of human dignity, of politics, and of work toward a just society.
Much of this thinking was prompted by the horrors that were witnessed during and after the second world war, horrors that remain a part of our consciousness – acts of genocide, acts of barbarism, ask that grounded it is vision that reduced the humanity of others. In the wake of the second world war, the United Nations was founded, and it is known that personal is thought, in the work of Jacques Maritain found its way into the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Those international documents serve as a context for the issue of torture. In the wake of the Second World War United Nations was founded, and several international accords were created and signed preventing the use of torture. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) was consciously created in response to violations of human dignity during the two world wars, especially the second, and as the document states in its preamble, “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind” (Preamble). Article 5 of the declaration states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” It is an absolute prohibition and there are no exceptions named in the document.
The United Nations Declaration was closely followed by The Geneva Conventions of 1949, which are explicit regarding how prisoners of war are to be treated. Article 13 of the Third Convention states that, “Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. Any unlawful act or omission by the Detaining Power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited, and will be regarded as a serious breach of the present Convention.” (Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War of 12 August 1949, Part II, General Protection of Prisoners of War, Article 13, “Humane Treatment of Prisoners.” Geneva, Switzerland: International Committee of the Red Cross).
The use of torture, then is prohibited in documents to which most of the nations on the planet of signatories. That incidents of torture did not enter no doubt part of the reason that in mid-1980s, the United Nations published a subsequent document the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment of 10 December 1984 defines torture this way:
‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, 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. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions (Part 1, Article 1).
Spool forward to the early 2000’s, enter the administration of the second George Bush, where the last sentence just quoted was, in a sense, the Bush administration escape clause, since if they could rename torture, applying a euphemism, and bring it under the umbrella of federal law, they could argue that such procedures were not prohibited.
In the next blog in the series, I will take a look at the so-called US torture memos, and how the documents created in the wake of the second world war for the protection and enhancement of human dignity were subverted.