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The policy context of torture: A social-psychological analysis

31-03-2005 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 857, by Herbert C. Kelman

Acts of torture are conceptualized as crimes of obedience, which are inevitably linked to crimes at higher levels of the hierarchy, where orders are issued, policy is formulated, and the atmosphere conducive to acts of torture is created.


Herbert C. Kelman
Herbert C. Kelman is Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Emeritus, at Harvard University and a student of international conflict and conflict resolution, specializing in the Middle East. 

The present analysis suggests several conditions under which torture becomes an instrument of State policy and the authority structure of the State is fully utilized to implement that policy: the perception by State authorities that the security of the State is under severe threat – which, at the macro-level, can justify torture and, at the micro-level, contribute to its authorization; the existence of an elaborate and powerful apparatus charged with protecting the security of the State – which, at the macro-level, may lead to the recruitment and training of professional torturers as part of that apparatus and, at the micro-level, contribute to the routinization of torture; and the existence of disaffected ethnic, religious, political, or other groups within (or under the control) of the State that do not enjoy full citizenship rights – which, at the macro-level, may lead to their designation as enemies of the State and appropriate targets for torture and, at the micro-level, their dehumanization.  

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