Comment »Posted on Friday 12 June 2009 at 8:38 am by Jessica Bland
In Getting It Right, Psychology, Science Policy

I wrote the following for Felix newspaper at Imperial College. I was interested in the US definition of torture. The story has become more relevant this week with the revelations about possible Waterboarding used by the Met: an interesting case of copycat tactics which shows that the US attitudes can have repercussions well outside their national borders. The news on Wednesday adds force to Shue’s comment that by not changing the US definition of torture, Obama has not done enough to prevent another Guantanamo…


We have a right not to be tortured. It is a basic human right – one that stretches across borders and cultures to societies that share few other values. The condemnation of torture is a constant where many other things are not.

But what do we mean by torture: forcing prisoners to stand for hours at a time? Playing them the same song over and over for three days? Recreating the feeling of drowning? Under international law, none of these are. They are mentally, but not physically abusive.   And torture is defined as physical abuse.

The public debate following Obama’s release of the details of CIA interrogations in Guantanamo has centred round whether or not these mentally abusive techniques are torturous enough to make them illegal. And new research published last week in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry adds to the mounting evidence that they are, or at least that they should be.

Torture victims from former Yugoslavia countries and Turkey rated the stressfulness of their overall torture experience. Those that experienced high levels of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (CIDT), such as forced stress positions or waterboarding, rated their overall torture experience as more stressful than those who suffered physical torture. CIDT victims also showed higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“There is a widely held misconception of torture,” said Dr. Metin Basoglu, author of the study. “It is not just something that happens in the course of the interrogation process. It incorporates all of the other circumstances in which these events occur.”

Basoglu identifies 46 different contextual factors and it was the stress these caused that participants were asked to rate. “Think of it from the perspective of the person. They perceive a wide range of stressors, even when these stressors are not intentionally inflicted upon the person for torture purposes.”

It is not just that context is important. It is more important than the amount of physical pain. There is no clear correlation between increased physical pain and overall stress. But the correlation between CIDT and overall stress implies that psychological context is influential.

Therefore, Basoglu argues, the definition of torture used in International law should be modified. “It would be based on four parameters” Intent, purpose and removal of control are all widely-accepted criteria for torture. But Basoglu adds a fourth criterion: “multiple stressors must be present.” So, both combinations of physical events and psychologically stressful situations would constitute torture under this definition.

Others argue this kind of international redefinition is impractical and unnecessary. “Changing international law is not a relevant solution requires a lot of energy and negotiations. And it would take a long time to go through,” said Professor Henry Shue, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and author of an influential writer on torture. Instead, he believes that what needs to be changed is the US legal definition of torture.

“Under the UN Convention law both torture and what Basoglu calls CIDT are illegal. So the distinction between them does not much matter. But when the US ratified the convention in 1988, Reagan interpreted the convention as only applying to physical abuse and psychological conditions arising from physical abuse.” This meaning is the one that was incorporated into US law in 2006 in the Military Commissions Act.

Shue emphasised that “this is not something that started with Richard Cheney and George Bush”. But under the recent Bush administration it became law. And despite publishing torture memos detailing interrogation techniques used in Guantanamo, Obama has done nothing to reverse the distinction between the UN convention and US law.

“I am disappointed with Obama’s response on this issue. He has said he wishes to abolish torture, but has not addressed the definition of torture,” Shue said. He explained that it still leaves open the possibility of future Guantanamo like interrogations.

In the face of research like Basolgu’s, it is difficult to see how America can keep using the narrow Reagan definition. Redefining torture might seem like a pedantic effort in the case of international law. But in the US, we have already witnessed the horrifying consequences of leaving a gap between what is torturous and what is law. Let’s hope the Obama administration doesn’t let this linger – that they don’t let it become their first mistake.

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