A Reminder That Rejecting Torture is the Right Thing To Do

In this image, you can see an ICRC delegate in GTMO shaking hands with a detainee through the cell’s “bean hole”. Copyright: Anna Nelson/ICRC 

In this image, you can see an ICRC delegate in GTMO shaking hands with a detainee through the cell’s “bean hole”. Copyright: Anna Nelson/ICRC 

The topic of torture and questions as to whether it works, whether it should be used, and whether techniques like waterboarding constitute ill treatment have started to resurface in recent days.

The ICRC takes a very strong stance against torture and has long advocated for its repudiation and rejection. Our position is that torture, and other forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, are clearly illegal.

Given the renewed rhetoric around this subject, we’ve decided to repost an opinion piece written by ICRC President, Peter Maurer, and originally published by the Huffington Post in December 2014.

At the time, the ICRC felt it was important to unequivocally underline our legal, moral, and ethical position that torture is not only prohibited at all times, but it is also an affront to humanity. Given the recent discourse in the United States, we feel that these messages bear repeating. 


Op-ed by the President of the ICRC, Peter Maurer (from December 2014)

Unsurprisingly, the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s summary report on CIA detention, rendition, and interrogation has sparked renewed debate in the United States over the use of torture.

Much of the discussion over the past week has focused on whether the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” produces actionable intelligence or useful information.

As a humanitarian, I would argue that this discussion is misguided. 

Let’s not confuse what works or doesn’t work with what is right and what is wrong.

The fact of the matter is that torture is illegal. The prohibition of torture, and all forms of ill-treatment, is absolute – everywhere and at all times. It is strictly forbidden by international human rights law, U.S. jurisprudence, the United Nations Convention against Torture, and the Geneva Conventions – a body of law embraced by the U.S. and its military since the 19th Century.

Importantly, torture is morally reprehensible and it should be permanently repudiated by all nations.

Torture and other forms of cruel or humiliating treatment are an affront to humanity, and the physical and psychological scars can last a lifetime. 

It is morally wrong because it dehumanizes the victims, the perpetrators, and the society that surrounds them.

Torture can destroy the social fabric of communities, degrade a society’s institutions, and undermine the integrity of its political systems.

I know that no country on Earth is entirely immune to what amounts to an ages-old temptation, and some people reading this might think, “That’s easy for you to say. Sometimes you have to make tough choices in the name of national security.”

I would argue that those who believe that perceived, near term tactical gains are worth risking long term and potentially dangerous consequences, are shortsighted.  Experience shows that the reliance on illegal, immoral, and inhumane interrogation techniques is universally a very poor choice.

The International Committee of the Red Cross visits roughly half a million detainees in nearly 100 countries each year. It’s our job to try to prevent and put an end to torture and ill-treatment.

During my time as President of the ICRC, I’ve met in person with detainees, who have experienced ill-treatment at the hands of their captors, and I know for a fact that abuse only grows hatred. It sows the seeds of revenge, and nothing justifies the use of such tactics. I’ve also observed that torture has a corrupting effect on its perpetrators and the institutions they serve.

Wherever it takes place and whatever the stakes involved, it’s simply wrong.

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the ICRC actively engaged with the U.S. on issues related to the treatment of detainees held in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay.

Very early on, we decided to invest in a constructive and sustained dialogue with the American authorities. Even when discussions were sometimes tense over the past 12 years, the ICRC’s commitment to the detainees never wavered. We remain committed to visiting them, monitoring their treatment, connecting them with their families, and consistently reminding the U.S. of their obligations under international humanitarian law. Today, our relationship with the government is strong.

The bottom line is that decisions taken in Washington resonate across the globe. The U.S. has a major influence on the world stage and American detention practices can, for better or for worse, have an impact on the actions of officials, prison directors, guards, and interrogators in even the most far-flung places on the planet.

That’s why this moment in history offers an opportunity to reaffirm clearly, and for the whole world to hear, that torture and ill-treatment are fundamentally wrong, and that unconditionally rejecting such tactics – now and forever – is the right thing to do.

Visit our Facebook gallery of images of the ICRC inside Guantanamo.