It is difficult to study human history without mentions of war and torture of enemy combatants is almost as ancient a tradition as the war itself. There is a favorite saying that everything is fair in love and war but it is not difficult to realize that even war rules have changed over time. We rarely hear about ancient Roman armies or Mongol armies being held accountable for mass massacre of innocent citizens. Now warring nations are expected to abide by certain rules and military leaders are even held personally accountable for violations of one or more of these rules. One of the rules which might have rarely raised a hair in older times but is now considered a violation of basic human rights is torture. Torture has lately been getting lot of attention because of its actual or perceived widespread use by the U.S. military in its war on terror as well as Afghanistan and Iraq military campaigns. The U.S. military should abandon the use of torture because it hurts the political goodwill and credibility of the country in the international community, violates international laws such as the Geneva Conventions, and promotes the agenda of terrorist organizations.
The U.S. is not afraid to depict itself as the champion of basic human rights in the world. In fact, the country has often attempted to justify Afghanistan and Iraq wars by claiming it will improve the basic rights of the citizens in these respective countries. These military campaigns as well as the so-called war on terror often depict enemies as barbarians and extremists who have little or no regard for rule of law and basic human rights. Thus, it is not out-of-the-ordinary for the international community to expect U.S. to display the highest military ethical standards and actions speak louder than words. If the U.S. wants to establish the rule of law and respect for basic human rights everywhere in the world, it has to set practical examples. Torture doesn’t only violate the moral and ethical standards of modern times but even U.S. and international laws to which U.S. is a party.
First of all, the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives an individual the right against self-incrimination which means an individual can choose to remain silent during interrogations. Similarly, the Eighth Amendment gives individuals the right to be free of cruel or unusual punishment. The use of torture by U.S. agents or officials outside the U.S. is also prohibited under Anti-Torture Statute and the Federal War Crimes Act (Unitarian Universalist Service Committee).
At international level, the Geneva Conventions ban cruel and degrading treatment such as torture of prisoners of wars and noncombatants. First clause in Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions states, “Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed ‘ hors de combat ‘ by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.” (ICRC) Some may argue that it doesn’t apply to terrorist organizations but global reaction to Abu Ghraib incident demonstrates that protection from torture applies to everyone irrespective of his/her country or group affiliation.
But if the U.S. military shows little respect for local and international laws as well as ethical and moral standards, the world has little reason to be convinced U.S. is genuinely committed to the rule of law. The incidents at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib result in loss of moral support for the U.S. Even U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel, member of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2007, acknowledged that torture incidents hurt America’s reputation in the eyes of the rest of the world, given the fact that U.S. had more to with writing the Geneva Conventions than any other country (The Independent).
ICRC. Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949. 8 July 2013 <http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/0/e160550475c4b133c12563cd0051aa66?OpenDocument>.
The Independent. Hagel: U.S. reputation hurt by torture controversy. 21 December 2007. 7 July 2013 <http://www.theindependent.com/news/hagel-u-s-reputation-hurt-by-torture-controversy/article_1a977678-3d0c-5c74-80b3-0cc248dec3ff.html>.
Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Torture and Human Rights: A Guide. 7 July 2013 <http://www.uusc.org/content/torture_and_human_rights>.