Crimes, war crimes, and crimes against humanity

The Justice Department authorized the CIA to torture, including use of the waterboard. This authorization violated, among other treaties and laws, the UN Convention Against Torture and the Constitution of the United States.  According to recently released, heavily redacted documents (1 and 2):

Unless otherwise approved by headquarters,” C.I.A. officers “may use only Permissible Interrogation Techniques,” which include “(a) Standard Techniques and (b) Enhanced Techniques.” (Emphasis added.)

The “Enhanced” techniques:

1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.

2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.

3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. 

4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. 

5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.

6. Water Boarding

Other interrogation techniques employed by the US, and apparently “approved by headquarters”, include stress positions, prolonged isolation, the threat of harm, sensory deprivation, and sleep deprivation. See video.  


Regardless of our views about the morality or efficacy of these techniques, they violate, among other treaties and laws, the UN Convention Against Torture.

Article 1 defines “torture” as:

[A]ny act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. 

Article 2

1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.

2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

3. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.


The US is a signatory, but even non-signatories are bound by the Convention. 


The White House says waterboarding “is not torture.”  This is not relevant, as we have seen from Article 2, section 3, above.  In addition, according to Article 16, even if your favorite “Enhanced Technique” doesn’t seem to meet the standard of Article 1, you are not off the legal hook.  States are prohibited from

other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture as defined in article 1. (Emphasis added.)


The European Convention on Human Rights makes the same point.  (Note the “or”, below.)

“Even in the most difficult of circumstances, such as the fight against organized terrorism and crime, the [European Convention on Human Rights] prohibits in absolute terms torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (emphasis added). Aksoy v. Turkey, Case No. 21987/93, Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (December 18, 1996).

The Torture Convention requires (Article 19) signatories to provide reports describing their compliance. Here is an excerpt from the 1999 report submitted by the United States.    

“Torture is prohibited by law throughout the United States. It is categorically denounced as a matter of policy and as a tool of state authority. Every act constituting torture under the Convention constitutes a criminal offence under the law of the United States. No official of the Government, federal, state or local, civilian or military, is authorized to commit or to instruct anyone else to commit torture. Nor may any official condone or tolerate torture in any form. No exceptional circumstances may be invoked as a justification of torture. United States law contains no provision permitting otherwise prohibited acts of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment to be employed on grounds of exigent circumstances (for example, during a “state of public emergency”) or on orders from a superior officer or public authority, and the protective mechanisms of an independent judiciary are not subject to suspension.”


According to Amnesty International,

Every act of torture is a crime under international law. If committed in the context of an armed conflict, whether international or internal, such acts constitute a war crime. If committed as part of a systematic or a widespread pattern of criminal conduct, whether in peace or war, acts of tortureconstitute a crime against humanity.


Gen. Anthony Taguba, who was chosen by the Army to investigate the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and who was forced to retire for its “overzealous” criticism, writes

[T]he Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture… After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.



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