International Day Against Torture: June 26
Torture is a clear violation of international humanitarian law and as such of direct concern to the ICRC. On the occasion of the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the ICRC joins with others in condemning a practice which demeans humanity and human dignity.
One tragic corollary of all this has been to put the issue of torture in the wrong spotlight. In an understandable outrage against terrorism, there have been isolated strident voices calling for extreme methods – even going as far as justifying the use of torture if need be, to extract information from any suspect. One columnist in a respected weekly said something to the effect that only “moral idiots would refuse the use of torture” to find, say, a “ticking bomb” in a city. There was an advocate, in a similar piece, for using “sophisticated psychological means” – as opposed to barbaric forms of torture – for the same purpose. Is it necessary to recall psychological methods of torture are banned by international law as much as the medieval rack would be?
With due respect to the grief of the victims’ families, and fully sympathising with all legitimate efforts to thwart any repetition of the horror of 9/11, it must be said that even such isolated statements – though obviously not representing official policy in any way – are rash and counter-productive. In the end, they serve the ends of other governments that are just looking for an excuse to crackdown on (and torture) any opponents to their already coercive regimes, and now will continue to do so under the laudable excuse of " being tough " on terrorism.
The “ticking bomb” alibi has been used time and time again as an excuse for torture. The International Committee of the Red Cross has for many years, and all over the world, been confronted with the issue of torture when visiting prisoners in countries in conflict situations. This type of argument – “expediency” of interrogations over effective “intelligence” – has been heard countless times. Torture for “information” obviously exists – it is, however, used much more often for purposes of incrimination, indoctrination and intimidation than to extract information.
The use of torture is not, as many would believe, an inevitable and unchanging constant in history. Torture used to be practised under the highest moral authorities of society, and in the full public view so as, precisely, to intimidate future wrongdoers. Today as we know, it is universally condemned, and therefore officially “denied” and only practised clandestinely.
ICRC visits to prisoners seek to obtain decent and humane conditions for all persons in custody. To this effect, its delegates and physicians do document torture in all contexts where they come across vict ims having suffered its many different forms, so as to intervene at the highest level possible to try to put a stop to torture. More important perhaps in this context to the individuals concerned, ICRC visits provide empathy, and medical counselling, to those whose most basic rights as human beings have often been trampled by regimes of repression.
How can this even begin to relate to the legitimate issue of foiling terrorism, some may ask? It is undeniable that the ICRC, in the course of its visits, comes across the full spectrum of people in custody, and is in no case in a position to determine who has or hasn’t done what – nor does it intend to. A large proportion of these people will have been arrested but not yet convicted – in some cases not even yet charged with anything. ICRC visits are intended to provide human dignity to the countless tens of thousands of prisoners worldwide who have nothing to do with terrorism. How many thousands of these will have been tortured under the alibi of a “ticking bomb” somewhere?