Influenced by similar historical forces and intellectual trends, the fields of anthropology and international relations have begun collaborating in areas such as migration, human security, and non-state activism. One area of potential interest to international relations scholars is archaeologists’ study of the emergence, development, and decline of states. Another area is cultural anthropologists’ study of war, peace, and violence. Both international relations scholars and cultural anthropologists have begun studying non-state actors and globalization, as well as transdisciplinary topics such as gender, human rights, and nationalism. Moreover, international relations research on ethnic conflicts is growing, with many scholars drawing from anthropological works on the link between internal political processes and ethnic violence. Another area in which some international relations scholars and anthropologists have collaborated is human security; increasing numbers of anthropologists are studying cultures undergoing armed conflict. One controversial arena was applied anthropology’s recent involvement in U.S. military efforts in the Middle East. Most anthropologists agree that the use of anthropology for national defense purposes violates anthropology’s code of research ethics. Overall, the field of international relations has shown increasing interest in the question of “culture” and in the qualitative research methods that characterize anthropological research.
International law defines torture as the intentional infliction of intense suffering aimed at forcing someone to reveal information, punishing unwanted behavior or inspiring fear in a broader population. Since torture is banned under any and all circumstances, states go to great lengths to insist that their conduct does not qualify as torture. Officials seek to distance themselves legally and morally from an association with torture by using clean torture techniques that do not leave physical marks and by downplaying the seriousness of their methods, characterizing their interrogation techniques in euphemistic language that makes it possible to practice torture without admitting that they are doing so. Yet even supposedly lesser forms of abuse referred to as torture “lite” can have severe effects when they are employed in combination and for long periods. Fundamentally, torturous acts are designed to break a victim by demonstrating the victim’s utter powerlessness. Historically, torture was not only common in times of war and social upheaval, but it was also openly practiced in many societies as an integral part of the judicial system. Torture was seen as an effective technique for obtaining information as well as an appropriate punishment for the immoral and a useful deterrent against future misconduct. Since the end of World War II, torture has been rejected as a violation of basic human rights and publicly condemned by most countries in the world; international treaties such as the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT) require signatory parties to end torture within their territorial jurisdiction and to criminalize all acts of torture. Nonetheless, countries throughout the world continue to engage in ill-treatment and torture, often during times of national stress, when perceived others or out-group members are subjected to extreme interrogation. Although torture is employed by democratic and nondemocratic forms of government alike, empirical studies reveal that political regimes and institutions have a significant impact on the type of torture used and the duration of government support for torture. Effective democratic institutions like a free press and an independent judiciary make it more likely that cases of torture will be exposed and violators punished, and democratic governments with strong mechanisms for holding officials accountable are more likely to transition away from ill-treatment and torture of detainees, at least once violent challenges end. During periods of perceived threat, however, public intolerance of unwanted others makes it likely that democratic publics will condone if not encourage the use of torture against detained transnational terrorism suspects and other dissidents. Under such circumstances, independent judicial institutions may incentivize officials to practice torture more covertly. Non-democratic countries are more likely to flout human rights treaties such as the CAT, signing such agreements as a means of deflecting criticism but continuing to employ torture against dissidents. Even liberal democracies are found to have difficulty complying with certain international human rights treaty obligations, especially when information about violations—as in the case of torture—tends to be hidden. The resulting impunity makes it difficult to put an end to torture.
Despite an absolute prohibition against torture, countries throughout the world continue to engage in ill-treatment and torture, often during times of national stress, when perceived others or out-group members are subjected to extreme interrogation. This is shown in numerous analyses and documentary evidence of the detention and interrogation policies adopted by the US government after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, including coercive interrogation techniques that many regard as torture, secret detentions, and extraordinary renditions to third countries known to practice torture. Faced with an uncertain and stressful situation, prison guards in Abu Ghraib turned to violence as a way of reassuring themselves that they were in control. With little oversight and a general mandate to secure actionable intelligence, aggression was encouraged and physical and psychological techniques refined in Afghanistan and at the detention center in Guantánamo became standard operating procedures. Though government leaders disavowed the use of torture and claimed that the United States used legally and morally acceptable coercive interrogation methods, US actions prompted a renewed philosophical and political debate whether there should be an absolute prohibition against torture or whether, under carefully specified circumstances, it is a lesser evil to torture a suspect for information to prevent a greater evil that menaces society. Justifications for the limited use of torture focus on its utility in preventing greater harm, especially under ticking bomb scenarios. Arguments for an absolute ban on torture question its effectiveness, citing anecdotal and experimental evidence that coercive methods often produce false confessions. Critics also cite strategic costs, including harm to the US reputation and its counterterrorism efforts, as well as damage to the global norm against torture. Public opinion in the United States and globally is ambivalent, though increasing representations of torture in popular culture have cultivated a torture myth, according to which torture is only used against hardened terrorists and in exceptional circumstances, when time is of the essence and torture is both necessary and effective in forcing terrorists to divulge valuable information that can save lives and avert future attacks. Ultimately, unrealistic depictions of torture and ambivalent signals from political leaders have created a climate of impunity and broad, though deeply divided support for harsh interrogation techniques.