When the subject concerning state use of torture arises, the United States and other liberal democracies may not be perceived as primary perpetrators of such egregious actions, as they arguably give high priority to individual rights. The United States has historically led the charge against human rights violations, affirming respect for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and encouraging its implementation abroad. However, underneath the surface of perception lies a slightly different reality today.
The United States’ global war on terror has, over the past decade, ushered in a new attitude towards torture. Starting in the United States and subsequently spreading around the world as more nations increased security measures, the war on terror reframed torture methods as enhanced interrogation tactics necessary for security. It has provided countries such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States with a way to circumvent the traditional view of torture, which holds that torture is unacceptable regardless of the reason for which it is used.
At the center of modern torture controversies is the American military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Among the methods of torture reportedly used at Guantanamo are sexual assault and humiliation, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and isolation, mock executions, forced medication, watching others being tortured, psychological techniques, sensory bombardment (noise), use of dogs to scare detainees, temperature extremes, and force-feedings. The latter torture method has been especially controversial. While some declare it is necessary to force-feed those who are on hunger strikes in order that they should not die, others claim that this method is inhumane and medically unethical, as it causes great pain and vomiting and does more damage to the person than actual good.
Al Jazeera reports that prisoners are “force-fed a liquid nutritional supplement, undergo a brutal and dehumanizing medical procedure that requires them to wear masks over their mouths while they sit shackled in a restraint chair for as long as two hours. The prisoners remain this way, with a 61 centimeter or longer tube snaked through their nostril until a chest X-ray, or a test dose of water, confirms it has reached their stomach.” If they vomit, the procedure begins again.
“The British Medical Association has written to Barack Obama urging him to immediately suspend the role of doctors and nurses in force-feeding prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay and to launch an inquiry into how the ‘unjustifiable’ practice has been allowed to develop,” reports The Guardian.
Intensifying the debate, children and the elderly have been among the combatants in detention at Guantanamo Bay. The Guardian reports that Guantanamo’s prisoners have included “an 89-year-old Afghan villager, suffering from senile dementia, and a 14-year-old boy who had been an innocent kidnap victim.” The elderly man had been taken to Guantanamo because of “suspicious phone numbers” found in his compound, while the child was imprisoned because of “possible knowledge of Taliban…local leaders.” The possibility of innocent people being imprisoned there only adds to the negative attention the detention camp is already getting.
As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights observed, “The United States is in clear breach not just of its own commitments but also of international laws and standards that it is obliged to uphold." Guided primarily by security instead of concern for individual rights, U.S. methods of enhanced interrogation violate rights protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) such as the right to dignity; the right to trial; freedom of speech; and the right to be free from torture and other degrading punishments. In addition, the United States has undermined its commitment to uphold the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions—which prohibits the use of torture “at any time and in any place whatsoever”—in its treatment of “war on terror” detainees.
Public concern about the U.S. use of torture is ever increasing. In response to the highly contentious nature and extreme unpopularity of Guantanamo Bay, President Barack Obama promised in 2008 to close the prison down. "I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that,” he said. In January 2009, Obama signed a statement that read, "The detention facilities at Guantanamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable as and no later than 1 year from the date of this order.” Years later, his promise remains unfulfilled.
In light of such mixed messages and sustained human rights violations supported by policy and justified by security, the American people are increasingly fearful that legislation could either overlook or condone the use of unorthodox and inhumane methods of interrogation, surveillance, and punishment. For example, many argue and fear that the USA PATRIOT Act and the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (NDAA) may have the judicial power to create situations in which citizens are stripped of their privacy, detained indefinitely, and subjected to ill treatment. On the other hand, some argue that the single purpose of the PATRIOT Act and the NDAA is to protect national security and that “the tension between [security and individual rights] can be worked out.”
In the end, the use of torture by the United States for the sake of security may amount to no more than normalization of the abuse of individuals for the abstract and pseudo notion of the “greater good.” The United States must be mindful that changing narratives to justify torture sets an example for others to adopt their own justifications. Though closing Guantanamo Bay detention camp is no easy task, the United States should heed the calls of those demanding that the torture stop, as upholding human rights and maintaining international moral credibility demands this.