Paper on torture and language for a symposium


Below is the text of a paper for presentation at a symposium on torture. It discusses the nexus between the practice of torture in recent times and the uses of language.

“No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.”
(Article 17, Third Geneva Convention)

Torture is the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain. To coerce is to persuade an unwilling person to do something by using force or threats. Synonyms for coercion include force, compulsion, constraint, duress, oppression, enforcement, harassment, intimidation, threats, arm-twisting, and pressure.

International and U.S. law prohibits torture and other ill-treatment of any person in custody in all circumstances. The prohibition applies to the United States during times of peace, armed conflict, or a state of emergency. Any person, whether a U.S. national or a non-citizen, is protected. It is irrelevant whether the detainee is determined to be a prisoner-of-war, a protected person, or a so-called “security detainee” or “unlawful combatant.” And the prohibition is in effect within the territory of the United States or any place anywhere U.S. authorities have control over a person. In short, the prohibition against torture and ill-treatment is absolute.

Each day brings more information about the appalling abuses inflicted upon men and women held by the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the world. U.S. forces have used interrogation techniques including hooding, stripping detainees naked, subjecting them to extremes of heat, cold, noise and light, and depriving them of sleep—in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. This apparently routine infliction of pain, discomfort, and humiliation has expanded in all too many cases into vicious beatings, sexual degradation, sodomy, near drowning, and near asphyxiation. Detainees have died under questionable circumstances while incarcerated.

As George Orwell pointed out most effectively, governments control language as well as people. Since the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke, the US government (and our own), from the highest officials in Washington to Army prison guards in Baghdad, have used every euphemism they can think of to avoid the word that clearly characterizes what some of soldiers and civilian contractors have been doing: torture.

“What has been charged so far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture,” said former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “I’m not going to address the `torture’ word.” And nobody else seems to want to address it either. Rather, we are told, military police officers at Abu Ghraib were encouraged to treat the prisoners so as to create “favourable conditions” for interrogations. In any bureaucracy, orders or clearance to do something beyond the law always comes in code. For those in senior positions, deniability is vital.

The legitimisation of the use of torture, couched in the more palatable language of ‘coercion’ begins with a definition of those to be subjected to such treatment. Shortly after the opening of Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, Rumsfeld described the detainees as ‘hardened criminals willing to kill … for their cause’.

The US government’s declared global War on Terror has provided it with a rhetorical framework to argue that ‘special needs create special circumstances’. George W Bush has been quoted as saying to his advisors, following the September 11 attacks ‘I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.’ And the history of his administration’s actions since then demonstrate that resolve, and the consequences flowing from it, dressed in the language of the possible. In these special circumstances it is asserted that those accused of terrorism, or, as in the case of David Hicks, supporting terrorism, may be defined as enemy combatants. A relatively unused provision in international law allows for the categorisation of persons involved in ‘international armed conflict’ as enemy combatants, a group of people not explicitly protected by the Geneva Conventions, as quoted previously. The US federal administration categorised a large number of those detained at Guantanamo Bay as ‘enemy combatants’ to justify treatment – euphemistically called ‘management techniques’ – beyond, and in contravention of, the Geneva Conventions, international and domestic US law. An American organisation, Human Rights Watch, expressed concern regarding this development, describing it as dangerous loop-hole, threatening the basic guarantees of justice and fairness.

The time following the devastating September 11 attacks saw the development by the US administration of three legal doctrines to legitimise the President’s otherwise unlawful sanctioning of torture as policy. The first was to argue that in a time of war the President, as commander-in-chief, could override the treaties and laws otherwise binding the US. The second innovation was a redefinition of torture, and the action of torturers. It was argued that if the intention of the torturer was to extract necessary information, then the torturer was not culpable, and further that if the torture did not extend to the point of causing organ failure (that is, death), then it was not torture per se, but rather coercion or the aforementioned creation of favourable conditions for the recovery of information. The final legal ‘discovery’ was the argument that the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay was not on US territory, and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of US courts.

Parallel to the development of legal doctrine was the creation of an apparatus to facilitate torture (now labelled as coercion). The CIA was given powers, by executive order, to allow for the creation of a system of facilities outside the US, and therefore beyond US law, for the detention and ‘extraordinary rendition’, or ‘extreme interrogation’ of enemy combatants. In some cases this consisted of making arrangements for the temporary transfer of detainees to nation-states notorious for the use of torture in interrogation. One of the facilities created by the CIA is known as Camp Echo – the facility in which David Hicks is housed at Guantanamo Bay. Concurrent with these developments were alterations made to armed forces operating procedures to allow for inhumane interrogation techniques. These included the approval by Donald Rumsfeld of sixteen interrogation techniques that used methods not compliant with the Geneva Conventions, and were beyond the existing Army standard interrogation manual.

The effect of this legal and administrative change of status, a change effectively based on arguments about language and the meaning of words, has been to create the conditions for an extraordinary horror.

It is, in many ways, language and the use of language that has made these abuses possible. Words allow redefinition. Redefinition of status allows a change in treatment to a redefined method of interrogation. Most US, and Australian citizens would baulk, rightly, at the use of torture for any purpose. But when the word ‘torture’ is banned, or used only by groups defined by governments as ‘extreme’ or ‘irrelevant’ (such as Amnesty International or the International Red Cross) discourse becomes limited, and atrocities tolerated. The use of language creates discourse, and discourse makes thought and discussion possible.

It is no doubt true that the torture of prisoners under Saddam Hussein was incomparably more widespread than that perpetrated by US forces, and often ended in death. The same is true in dozens of other regimes around the world. But torture is torture. It permanently scars the victim even when there are no visible marks on the body, and it leaves other scars on the lives of those who perform it and on the life of the nation that allowed and encouraged it. Those scars will be with us for a long time.


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