July 23, 2019
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    International Day in Support of Victims of Torture falls today

    June 26, 2019

    Of the many shameful practices that are carried out in the crevices and hidden spaces of our global governmental landscape, torture is amongst the most reprehensible and the most damaging. Though 163 countries are signatories to the UN convention against torture, including our own, it is still carried out in varying degrees of secrecy around the world and continues to be defended in public discourse. Today, June 26, marks the international day in support of victims of torture; a day for us to stand in solidarity with victims, recognizing the trauma inherent to this ordeal and to affirm our commitment to preventing torture and recognize it for the barbaric practice that it is.

    Against Justifications for Interrogational Torture

    Torture involves the infliction of extreme physical or mental suffering on an individual, often for the purposes of interrogation. It is an institution that has been continually defended despite the wealth of evidence highlighting its interrogational inefficacy and cruelty. Attempts have been made to justify interrogational torture on the grounds that it is a necessary tool in the maintenance of national security. However, these arguments do not stand up to scrutiny when upon an examination of the evidence.

    Opposition to torture is often responded to by its advocates with the positing of a hypothetical ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario in which we are asked to imagine a possible explosion killing thousands of people, where the only way to stop it is to torture the individual who planted the bomb so that they reveal where it is. Such arguments are often deployed as evidence that torture is sometimes justified in the interests of the ‘greater good.’ However, thought experiments such as these serve to distract from the empirical reality of torture as it is carried out in practice and are so devoid of context as to be useless in questions of the legality or acceptability of torture in the world we occupy.

    For instance, public support for torture often rests on a misconception of torture as a reliable means by which to obtain information in the service of national security; however, there is a distinct lack of evidence supporting the idea that torture can serve this purpose. Indeed, a number of studies show that torture is an incredibly ineffective tool in this regard. A 2014 report by the U.S.A’s Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found that ‘advanced interrogation techniques’ (a euphemism for torture) conducted by the CIA were not an effective means of collecting intelligence and often resulted in the collection of fabricated information. This sentiment has been echoed in a number of recent peer reviewed studies in publications such as the Journal of Legal Studies and the Journal of Applied Security Research which repeatedly demonstrate torture’s inefficacy. Torture has never worked to prevent the kind of impending hypothetical disasters that are used to conceptually justify it; such arguments only serve to provide support for real instances of torture that are more clearly unjust.

    Even worse than this is torture’s tendency to coerce victims into giving false confessions, resulting in the incarceration of innocent people. This has occurred in China for instance, with former Deputy Chief Prosecutor Wang Zhenchuan noting in 2006 that over 30 people had been wrongfully arrested after ‘illegal interrogation’, with concerns about the issue still rife in China today. The ineffectualness of this practice and the possibility of harm to innocent people render it even more egregious, especially when one considers the kind of lifelong suffering that it inflicts on those who experience it.

    Torture and Trauma

    It is important to recognize that the harms of torture are not isolated to the moment at which the torture takes place. The experience of torture tends to reverberate across a victim’s life in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, depression, anxiety and memory loss. This is the case for both psychological and physical torture.

    The Centre for Victims of Torture (CVT), an international non-profit organisation, notes that in their experience, psychological torture victims often display as much or even more long-lasting damage than victims of physical torture. This is corroborated by studies looking at victims of the former. For instance, a 2006 article in the Archives of General Psychiatry noted that degrading treatment and psychological manipulation cause as much emotional suffering and long-term harm to mental health as physical torture.

    Beyond the damage inherent to the infliction of suffering in and of itself are the specific ways in which torture is qualitatively different from other acts of violence, in terms of the way in which it undermines an individual’s autonomy and will.

    The psychotherapist Otto Doerr-Zeggers who studied victims of torture during Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile, noted that the distinctive character of the trauma which accompanies torture comes from its capacity to deny victims any control over their lives. The victim is completely at the mercy of the torturer, caught in a double bind with their own will turned against themselves. On Zeggers’ account, the experience of being tortured thus leaves the victim with “prior schemas of the self and the world . . . shattered”.

    One method of torture that best illustrates the kind of dynamics described by Zeggers is that of sexual humiliation. A CVT report notes that “Forced nakedness creates a power differential, stripping the victims of their identities, inducing immediate shame and creating an environment where the threat of sexual and physical assault is always present.” Another is the type of torture which involves the threat of death or injury with the report highlighting that victims often “plead with their torturers to kill them, preferring real death over the constant threat and intolerable pain it caused.” Such experiences typically cause harrowing flashbacks, transformations in perceptions of oneself and the world, as well as the many psychological issues that this engenders. In the context we find ourselves in where torture is wholly ineffective in achieving its stated task, it merely represents the purposeless infliction of intense, long term suffering upon another human being.

    Psychosocial support and trauma rehabilitation

    In addition to preventing the carrying out of torture, we must not neglect our duty to help those who are already suffering from its effects. In doing so we must acknowledge the kind of trauma it creates and help victims access trauma rehabilitation services.

    The role of psychosocial support and the organisations that offer it cannot be overstated in this regard. Psychosocial support involves helping individuals and communities deal with psychological wounds and supporting them in their efforts to recover a sense of agency in the wake of a traumatic event. A number of organisations across the world help victims to deal with trauma, they play a crucial role in alleviating the kind of psychic damage that torture causes.

    In Sri Lanka, bodies that help to deal with trauma include organisations such as the Family Rehabilitation Centre (FRC) who provide psychotherapeutic care for victims of conflict and gender related violence through long term initiatives across the country. Organisations like the FRC administer holistic programmes which include counselling, physiotherapy, capacity building and referral services. With time, services such as those provided by such organisations, allow for trauma victims to be able to deal with the psychological wounds inflicted by the experience of torture and thus ease their reintegration into everyday life.

    Zero tolerance for torture

    If we are to truly consider ourselves to be participants in a more enlightened era, free of the barbarism of our past, we cannot tolerate the continued presence of torture as a practice. We must identify the punitive base instincts which masquerade in our political culture as pragmatism or strength, recognize these instincts for what they are and prevent them from playing a role in our societies. In tandem with such efforts, on this day of international solidarity we must also express an active empathy with the victims of torture, providing meaningful support which may allow them to step outside of the long shadow that torture has cast on their lives.

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