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Accountability: Necessary Ingredient for Preventing Torture

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June 27, 2009

The decision to introduce torture as part the United States’ counterterrorism efforts several years ago has engendered shock, anger and profound disappointment both in the U.S. and around the world. The treatment of detainees in U.S. custody has been condemned by the International Committee of the Red Cross (PDF) and caused hundreds of our nation’s retired military leaders, national security professionals and foreign policy experts to speak out. It is clear to the world that the United States authorized and implemented policies sanctioning torture and cruelty.

For survivors of torture, these revelations have a deeply personal impact. For more than 20 years, the Minneapolis-based Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) has extended care and rehabilitative services to survivors of politically motivated torture in the United States and abroad. Through our healing work, we have witnessed the devastating impact torture has on individuals, their families, and their communities. Many CVT clients come to the United States fleeing nations where governments torture their citizens with impunity. They come seeking a home where human rights are respected and crimes are investigated.

Based on our experience working with torture survivors and understanding the systems in which they have been abused, we know that:

  1. Torture does not yield reliable information. Well-trained interrogators within the military, the FBI, and the police, have testified that torture does not work, is unreliable and distracting from the hard work of interrogation. Nearly every CVT client, when subjected to torture, confessed to a crime they did not commit, gave up extraneous information, or supplied names of innocent friends or colleagues to their torturers. It is a great source of shame for our clients, who tell us they would have said anything their tormentors wanted them to say in order to get the pain to stop. Such extraneous information distracts, rather than supports, valid investigations.
  2. Torture has never been confined to narrow conditions. Torture has often been justified by reference to a small number of people who know about the “ticking time bomb,” but in practice, it has always been extended to a much wider population.
  3. Psychological torture is damaging. When torture is defined as strictly a physical act, many believe that psychological coercion is okay. CVT’s clients say it was the psychological forms of torture that were the most debilitating over a long period. The source of their nightmares, 15 and 20 years later, was the mock executions or hearing others being tortured. The lack of self-esteem and depression were more related to scenarios of humiliation, consciously structured to demean the victim. Many within the world treatment movement believe we have seen increasingly sophisticated forms of psychological torture over the past 20 years.

A core part of our mission statement is a pledge to work for an end to the use of torture. To understand how this catastrophic failure of U.S. policy occurred and to prevent it from happening again, there must be an independent, nonpartisan investigation. And those who authorized or ordered torture should be held accountable.

America’s use of torture in the last seven years has fundamentally changed who we are as a country. Though the current Administration has banned torture and cruelty through an executive order, the effects of the sea-change in U.S. policy that took place after the tragedy of 9/11 are still felt today.

America got off-track and we need to guard against something similar happening again. The only way to do that is to assess the policies and practices that brought us to this point in our history, and hold the proper individuals accountable. Unearthing the truth may help America come to terms with what it was that allowed people to accept what was unacceptable.

Douglas A. Johnson, M.P.P.M. has been the Executive Director of the Center for Victims of Torture since 1988. Previously, he was the National Chair and Executive Director of INFACT, launching and coordinating the first grassroots international boycott against the food giant Nestle for its marketing practices of breast milk substitutes. He has served as a consultant on strategic planning to human rights organizations in Latin America, as a consultant to UNICEF and the World Health Organization, and as director of the Third World Institute of the Newman Center. He was an original member of the OSCE Advisory Panel on the Prevention of Torture (established in 1998) and continues to serve on the panel.

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