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Torture and Human Rights: A Guide
The right to be free from torture is one of the most fundamental human rights recognized by the global community today. It is UUSC's firm position that any government-sponsored acts of torture under any circumstances are profoundly immoral, unjustified, and illegal. As an organization that promotes human rights, UUSC is committed to bringing such practices to an end and holding the people who authorized such acts accountable.
- What is torture?
- What does the U.S. Constitution have to say about torture?
- The Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture
- U.S. statutory law
- Humane interrogation methods do work
- The downsides of the use of torture by the United States
Learn more about our civil liberties partners who work on the issue of torture:
According to the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984), torture is any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person by any government official or agent. This also includes acts of torture inflicted at the request of, or with the consent of, government officials.
There is no doubt that torture violates fundamental liberties established by the Bill of Rights. Torture also violates state constitutions where provisions parallel protections set forth in the federal Bill of Rights. The following constitutional amendments provide protection against torture:
- The Fourth Amendment: the right to be free of unreasonable search or seizure
- The Fifth Amendment: the right against self-incrimination (which encompasses the right to remain silent during interrogations)
- The Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendments: the right to due process of law (ensuring fundamental fairness in the criminal justice system)
- The Eighth Amendment: the right to be free of cruel or unusual punishment
In numerous cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has condemned the use of force amounting to torture or other forms of ill treatment during interrogations. The court has rejected the use of whipping; slapping; deprivation of food, water, or sleep; keeping a prisoner naked or in a small cell for prolonged periods; holding a gun to a prisoner's head; or threatening a prisoner with mob violence.
The Geneva Conventions, which regulate international law in times of war, clearly ban cruel and degrading punishment. They prohibit the torture of both prisoners of war (POWs) and noncombatants (civilians). The torture of any noncombatant is specifically prohibited by the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949). Moreover, the Convention against Torture bans the torture of any human being under any circumstances, even during times of war.
The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) requires ratifying nations to develop mechanisms that allow independent monitoring and evaluation of detention centers (prisons, police stations, immigration detention centers, mental-health hospitals, etc.) in order to prevent the use of torture. The United States has neither signed on to nor ratified OPCAT.
The use of torture by U.S. agents or officials outside the United States is a felony under both the Anti-Torture Statute (18 U.S.C. 2340) and the Federal War Crimes Act. Please visit the Cornell Law School website for more information.
Effective interrogation methods have been used by skilled police and FBI personnel for decades. These include cross-checking facts, sharing information, using "good cop/bad cop" teams and positive incentives, and slowly winning over the suspect and engaging him or her in dialogue. Interestingly, some Middle Eastern countries report that the use of a local Muslim religious leader with a terrorist suspect has produced important information. Recently, a former U.S. interrogator has spoken out about the information he was able to extract using humane, legal, and ethical interrogation techniques before the U.S. government required the use of inhumane, degrading, and illegal tactics such as water boarding and stress positions.
Our country's practice of torture and illegal detention jeopardizes the safety and well-being of our own servicemen and -women. If the United States casts aside the Geneva Conventions as "quaint and obsolete," there is no guarantee that other countries will not do to same and violate the rights of our military men and women to be free from torture. Moreover, the use of harsh methods has only increased, and will continue to increase, animosity against the United States globally, especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Following the disastrous policies of the Bush administration, it is imperative — for the safety of U.S. citizens and military personnel abroad as well as our moral standing in the world — to recommit ourselves as a country that stands for human rights, even in times of war. We must hold those who authorized torture responsible before the law.
For more information about torture and its effect, please read the Center for Victims of Torture's "Eight Lessons of Torture."