7 myths about torture

The use of torture is a contentious topic that has caused a myriad of heated arguments between those who believe the practice can be justified and those who say that it is a serious human rights violation that can never be tolerated. As a result, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about torture, poisoning the debate.

In this blog we debunk 7 of the most common myths about torture.

Torture works and there are no better alternatives

In the wake of last year’s release of the CIA torture report, there has been an ongoing and toxic debate over the use of torture. Does it work? Is it really that bad? The defenders of torture argue that had it not been for the CIA’s torture program, cities like London would have been hit by terrorist attacks. They also claim that at times, torture is a necessary evil to keep us all safe.

These are just some of many misconceptions about torture. Not only do we now know that what took place at Guantanamo Bay actually led to false confessions and stories, history also tells us that torture is not an effective means of acquiring intelligence.

(Courtesy of takomabibelot, via Flickr Creative Commons)

(Courtesy of takomabibelot, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Torture always leaves visible scars and is easy to document

That is not always the case. Unlike the infamous torture methods used in the Middle Ages, states today are trying very hard to hide their crimes. Thus, many torture methods leave little or no physical marks. Some examples are mock executions, temperature manipulation, sensory torture (noise and light), waterboarding (mock drowning), threats of harm to friends or family, and sleep deprivation. Increasingly sophisticated methods are harder to document, and the effects they produce more likely to be invisible, thus contributing to impunity.

Torture is anything awful done to a person

While the CIA ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ are torture, getting up early in the morning for work and doing the dishes is not. The UN Convention against Torture includes a widely accepted definition of torture. Torture always involves:

  • severe pain or suffering, physical or mental
  • intentionality
  • extraction of information or a confession, punishment, intimidation or coercion, or discrimination of any kind
  • a public official or person in an official capacity (the perpetrator)

Torture is a thing of the past

Most people connect torture to the Middle Ages and some have visited medieval torture museums to learn about this ancient practice. Back then, torture was considered a legitimate way to extract confessions, punish offenders, and perform executions. It turns out, torture is not history. The IRCT network of torture rehabilitation clinics treated more than 100,000 victims of torture according to its last census. Amnesty recently reported that more than 140 countries around the world still use torture. And in many countries, police officers are ignorant about the fact that torture constitutes a crime under international law and humane alternatives to torture exist.

(Courtesy of Gwendal Uguen, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Torture is not a thing of the past. (Courtesy of Gwendal Uguen, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Torture is only used in war, in a few countries

There are constantly new cases of torture happening away from armed conflicts and war. As an example, police brutality or torture in detention are both serious problems in a great majority of countries. In fact, Amnesty International has in the past five years reported torture and abuse in more than 140 countries.

Torture victims are either criminals or terrorists

Anyone can be a victim of torture – children as well as adults, young as well as old, religious as well as atheists, intellectuals and the uneducated alike.

Nobody is immune, although members of a particular political, religious, ethnic group or minority are at higher risk of being targets of government-endorsed violence. Frequent victims include politicians, union leaders, journalists, health professionals, human rights defenders, people in detention or prison, members of ethnic minorities, and student leaders.

Another large group of victims are poor people. Poverty makes people vulnerable to abuses and leaves them without the ways and means of defending their rights.

Not all forms of torture are bad

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person to obtain information, punish, intimidate or coerce is never justified. There is no such thing as one method being less harmful than the other.

All forms of torture are horrific violations of human rights – including beating, electric shocks, stretching, submersion, suffocation, burns, rape and sexual assault, isolation, threats, humiliation, mock executions, mock amputations, and witnessing the torture of others.

The consequences of torture — any torture — reach far beyond immediate pain and can leave long-term scars on the victims.

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