On December 12, 2008, the Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody released its final report. According to the report’s findings, some of the highest US officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, approved the use of torture on detainees held in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.firstname.lastname@example.org
None of this comes as much of a surprise. In an interview with ABC News following the report, Cheney seemed unrepentant regarding his postures. Relying once again on semantic distinctions, he said, “On the question of so-called ‘torture’, we don’t do torture, we never have. It’s not something that this administration subscribes to.” Only to go on to admit that he authorised the use of tactics such as water boarding by the CIA. In other parts of the interview, Cheney asserted the necessity of keeping Guantanamo Bay open for as long as the war on terror continues, citing that nearly 30 released detainees had returned to the battlefield.
Cheney’s comments have reinvigorated the debate over torture on the United States, with many civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union demanding that Cheney and other top US leaders be prosecuted for their involvement in the unconstitutional authorisation of torture.
A scathing editorial in the New York Times condemned the actions of top Bush administration officials, including Cheney, that were implicated in the Senate report saying that they “methodically introduced interrogation practices based on illegal tortures devised by Chinese agents during the Korean War. Until the Bush administration, their only use in the United States was to train soldiers to resist what might be done to them if they were captured by a lawless enemy. The officials then issued legally and morally bankrupt documents to justify their actions, starting with a presidential order saying that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to prisoners of the ‘war on terror’ — the first time any democratic nation had unilaterally reinterpreted the conventions.”
The use of torture as an interrogation technique is not limited to the United States. According to a news report issued by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 743 cases of police torture have been reported in Pakistan in the past six months. These include over 177 cases in Lahore alone, with a total of 406 cases in Punjab and 304 in Sindh, all in the first six months of 2008.
The torture, which was mostly done to extract confessions from victims included beating with batons or whips; forcing victims into stress positions, such having arms outstretched or being hung by the ankles; being burnt by cigarettes; and, in the case of female victims, being raped in custody. Most of those tortured were repeatedly victimised in police stations, some in their own homes pursuant to arrest and some even in public places as a spectacle for all to see.
In the past three years, over four thousand people have reportedly been tortured in police custody in Pakistan and these do not include the many cases which go unreported because of fear of retaliation by police officials.
The third player in the war against terror, the Taliban, notably takes the cake in arriving at previously unheard of forms of barbarity to torture prisoners and others unfortunate enough to be caught in their path. According to one interview given to the BBC’s Christina Lamb by a former Taliban operative, Hafiz Sadiqullah Hassani, Taliban foot soldiers were instructed to apprehend anyone playing cards, listening to music, flying kites, men not having beards that were long enough and any women daring to venture outside her home. Then, Mr Hassani explained, “they would be beaten with staves soaked with water like a knife cutting meat until the room ran with their blood or their spines snapped, they would then be left with no food or water in room filled with insects until they died.” In other cases, Hassani says, a variety of torture techniques would be used, including making victims sleep standing on their heads, hung upside down with their legs tied together and stretching out arms to be nailed together in mock crucifixions.
Hassani’s testimony is hardly the only report of Taliban barbarities and reliance on public torture. A scant few days ago, a video was released showing the public flogging and torture of alleged spies, accused of providing the US with information that led to the airstrike that killed Abu Faraj Al Libbi.
The three examples of the use and prevalence of torture by the United States, Pakistan and the Taliban are revealing in their ability to highlight the inability of the current system of international justice to hold state and non-state actors to even a bare minimum standard of human rights. All three cases represent different aspects of the increased irrelevance and superfluity of the international and legal communities’ safeguards against the use of torture.
Together, countries like the United States that have well entrenched institutionalised systems of law, countries like Pakistan that lack a solid judiciary and oversight of law enforcement officials, and non-state actors like the Taliban who are resolutely unapologetic about their own barbarity represent a torture triumvirate that suggests that the collective morality of the world has devolved to new depths of depravity.
Each side has excuses for the absolute necessity of using such tactics: the US argues that many of those tortured could be ‘ticking time bombs’ where information gleaned through such tactics may save hundreds of innocent lives; Pakistani officials assert that hardened terrorists deserve torture; and the Taliban claim that such torture is religiously prescribed for all their opponents.
Collectively, all three represent the moral devolution of a world which should know better based on its own history, and refuses to consider that the impact of this worldwide reliance on torture is the tragic blurring of moral boundaries between victim and oppressor. Ultimately, the use of torture on this worldwide scale, regardless of who perpetrates it, represents the transformation of all those silent humans into desensitised creatures that balk at nothing and value illusions of victory over their own humanity.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at