Old pain, new demons: Thinking torture and dignity today

10 July 2017

On 26 June 2017, on the occasion of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the ICRC convened a discussion at the Humanitarium between leading philosophers to address the role of torture in contemporary thought and practice. The panel explored torture from the vantage points of dignity, evil and the body in pain. In doing so, the discussion contributed to ongoing debates about the prominence of torture and how best to influence and educate about it today. The event is part of the ICRC Conference Cycle on "Generating Respect for the Law", which aims at addressing the importance of IHL and prevention efforts. Dr. Brad Evans, Reader in Political Violence and moderator of the discussion, also addresses what torture is today and how we should respond to it in a separate interview.


  • Mary Werntz, Deputy Director of Operations, ICRC


  • Professor Brad Evans, Reader in Political Violence, Bristol University


  • Elaine Scarry, Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value, Harvard University
  • Simona Forti, Professor of History of Political Philosophy, University of Eastern Piedmont
  • Jay Bernstein, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, New School for Social Research

Panel discussion

Mary Werntz, the ICRC's deputy head of operations, introduced the event, recalling that preventing torture and working with victims of torture are at the core of the ICRC's mission. Reflecting on her own experience visiting people in detention, she highlighted the importance of dignified human interaction in reinforcing detainees' hope and resilience. She also reflected on how the discussion around torture is changing and welcomed the panelists' contributions as a means of stepping back and considering, at a deeper level, why the continuous work to prevent torture matters and what the ICRC can learn from others.

Brad Evans framed the discussion and argued that torture not only damages individuals' sense of being fully human (often for the rest of their lives), but can also scar our social and political imagination more broadly, if we normalize torture and violence or accept them as inevitable. The challenge for the 21st century, Evans argued, is to understand why humans become violent and how we can work towards living together peacefully.

Jay Bernstein started off by looking back in history: For centuries, torture was at the heart of European law. The (modern) revulsion against torture dates back to 18th century Europe, when pain was no longer seen as divine will or punishment, but as something 'that should be done to nobody'. Since that time, Western law and philosophy no longer conceptualize punishment in terms of physical pain, but as suspending someone's rights. The very idea of human dignity and human rights depends on the prohibition on bodily harm – including for governments.

Elaine Scarry argued that it is fairly well demonstrated in the research that interrogation under torture does not produce useful information. This means that interrogation coupled with physical pain primarily serves to display the perpetrator's power, while the victim is reduced to bodily suffering and left unable to challenge their treatment. In fact, the use of torture often corresponds to times when a regime doubts its legitimacy.

Simona Forti concurred, highlighting that philosophy sees torture as emblematic of evil: On the one hand, there is an omnipotent subject and on the other there is someone who is reduced to their physical body. Usually, she emphasised, we experience ourselves not as bodies, but as individuals who are open to the world. Under torture, people are reduced to a state where they cannot appeal against their treatment and they are reduced to a thing in the total possession of another.

Bernstein picked up on both Scarry's and Forti's 'communicative' conception of torture, where the infliction of severe pain communicates that one side is all-powerful and the other is worthless. He took a closer look at this relationship to show how torture destroys human dignity and 'breaks' individuals: In torture, Bernstein argued, the victim is deprived of all control over their body and left only with their pain. The torturer takes over the victim's volition. Victims of torture lose any control over their body and can therefore not imagine the end of their pain. The result is a loss of trust in the world –you now know that your autonomy and volition can be taken over by someone else and you can be made deeply vulnerable. To Bernstein, then, torture is the paradigm of moral harm.

The conversation also touched upon the question of how far education can play a role in combatting torture. Elaine Scarry insisted rather on the vital importance of prosecuting perpetrators (including high-level officials) as a way of communicating that torture will not be accepted. Jay Bernstein spoke about avoiding torture being seen as normal rather than aberrant, and argued that in order to change norms for the better, it is crucial to build alternative paradigms and explain approaches, for example new modes of questioning based on rapport, that can deliver crucial information without harming individuals. Moreover, the discussion emphasized the crucial role of the law when seen as a guarantor of human dignity, rather than a tool of power.

Simona Forti returned to the topic of education: 'In order to be a better person, you need to know the worst that you are capable of. And therefore, we as teachers must insist on talking about these things.' Forti talked about the importance of educating to 'complexity', rather than accepting the majority's, often deceptively simple, views without questioning. She highlighted that on the one hand, humans are 'plural' – our identities are related to the identities of others in the collective and we cannot stand alone. On the other, in our life in society, we must never lose our capacity for individual judgement. One of the grave dangers of organized societies is that people try to conform and follow the majority. Complexity means recalling that we are connected to others, but that we must not lose ourselves and our capacity for judgement in the face of the majority.

Questions from the audience addressed research on non-coercive interrogation techniques, how concepts and norms change throughout history, as well as how to mobilize public opinion against torture effectively.