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Torture  

S. Megan Berthold

Although state-sponsored torture violates human rights and international law, it is a widespread practice worldwide. The effects are profound and extend beyond the targeted individual. This entry will explore the debate surrounding different definitions of torture and examine who is targeted for torture and why, as well as the wide range of effects of torture on individuals, families, and communities. Factors that contribute to the resilience of torture survivors will be identified. The various roles that social workers can play with this population will be outlined and common assessment and intervention approaches utilized by social workers with torture survivors will be discussed.

Article

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.

Article

Honni van Rijswijk

Scenes of torture are central to the Western imaginary of law, animating questions of power, authority and legitimacy. This examination of key cultural representations of torture provides some historical background on torture in the Western imaginary and focuses on its contemporary significance. A flexible set of analytical and aesthetic approaches to practices of representation are used to assess the changing significance of torture. In particular, three figures are central to the representation of torture—the torturer, the tortured, and the torture chamber. The significance of these elements differs depending on the form and perspective of representation. These elements of representations of torture changed following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and have complicated the social and legal work done by previous cultural texts and government policies around the effectiveness of torture and the risks of states of exception. Not only do popular films and television series support and justify the use of torture as a legitimate information-gathering tool, but representations of torture have become sites of pleasure and enjoyment. The emergence of new figures and genres in representations of torture suggests that the use of torture in violent or conflict scenes has been of increasing interest to the public and possibly have become increasingly accepted since the rhetoric of the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

Article

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.

Article

Thalia Anthony and Harry Blagg

Indigenous people have been subject to policies that disproportionately incarcerate them since the genesis of colonization of their lands. Incarceration is one node of a field of colonial oppression for Indigenous people. Colonial practices have sought to reduce Indigenous people to “bare life,” to use Agamben’s term, where their humanity is denied the basic rights and expression in the pursuit of sovereign extinguishment. Across the settler colonies of Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, the colonial drive to conquer land and eliminate Indigenous peoples has left deep scars on Indigenous communities and compromised bonds to kin, culture, and country. Indigenous people have been made refugees in their own countries. Contemporary manifestations of penal incarceration for Indigenous people are a continuation of colonial strategies rather than a distinct phase. The concept of “hyperincarceration” draws attention to the problem of incarceration and its discriminatory targets. It also turns our attention to the turnstile of incarceration in Western postmodernity. However, the prison is but one form of exclusion for Indigenous people in a constellation of eliminatory and assimilatory practices, policies, and regimes imposed by colonial governance. Rather than overemphasizing the prison, there needs to be a broader conceptualization of colonial governance through “the camp,” again in the words of Agamben. The colonial institutionalization of Indigenous people, including in out-of-home care, psychiatric care, and corrective programs, is akin to a camp where Indigenous people are relegated to the margins of society. We eschew a narrow notion of hyperincarceration and instead posit a structural analysis of colonial relations underpinning the camp.

Article

Understanding the current disjuncture between human rights, authoritarianism, populism, nationalism, globalization, and forced migration has never been more urgent, especially in the face of gradual collapse of the liberal world order. Failure to address human rights violations will have grave consequences. Without understanding the sources of human rights violations, international human rights standards will do little to ensure their realization across the globe. Yet it is unrealistic to search exclusively for general laws and discernible patterns of human rights violations that could be held across all cases. While it is possible to systematically explore both proximate and underlying causes of human rights violations, such an analysis must be grounded in theory. It is thus important to unpack the sources of endemic human rights abuses, including those having to do with authoritarianism, xenophobic nationalism, sectarianism, torture, child labor, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, genocide, forced migration, human/sexual trafficking, statelessness, and refugee crisis. To that end, there are two broad categories of human rights violations: domestic and international. Although there is agreement on the most pressing problems of human rights violations, there is no consensus over the answers. Our findings have broader implications for literature on human rights abuses, moral responsibility in the postliberal world order, and social justice.

Article

Wahbie Long

Psychology has always been a discipline immersed in the social and political currents of the day. At the level of psychological theory—whether one considers early pioneers such as Freud, Skinner, and Rogers, or, more recently, Seligman and the neuroscientific turn—its affinity with dominant socio-political concerns is easily demonstrated. Far from such individuals being calculating ideologues, however, they were interpellated—inevitably—by a field of power in which their personal and working lives were already embedded. On the other hand, it is equally true that Psychology’s phenomenal growth in the 20th century was built—most deliberately—on the alliances it formed with powerful bureaucratic elites. The discipline’s proximity to power, that is, meant not only that it could be co-opted ideologically but also that it would collude with oppressive regimes to enhance its own prestige. Project CAMELOT is one example where psychologists were willing to cooperate with the U.S. military in the service of a foreign policy that terrorized Latin America. The discipline also thrived under the Nazis with psychologists heavily involved in meeting the operational requirements of the Wehrmacht. Afrikaner psychologists in South Africa formed a close association with the apartheid state in both ideological and practical terms. More recently, the involvement of the American Psychological Association in a torture scandal has drawn attention once again to the discipline’s potential for collusion with institutional powers. In historiographic terms, some will take issue with the delivery of moral judgments when documenting the history of Psychology. However, the writing of history does not preclude such judgments, especially at a time when the exercise of power permeates disciplinary, institutional, and social life.

Article

Anne-Marie Cusac

Beginning in the mid-1970s, enormous changes governed U.S. punishment of criminal offenses, leading to harsher laws and longer prison terms than convicts in earlier decades served for the same offenses. The stark policy shift resulted in soaring prison populations that are disproportionate compared with most Western nations. The United States, with 5% of the world population, has more than 20% of the world’s prisoners. Its prison population rose 700% from 1970 to 2005. Today, one in 34 adults is under correctional control. The rates are disproportionate for minorities, especially less-educated black men (Lee, 2015; Pew, 2007, 2014; U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, 2012). Shifts in physical treatment of prisoners accompanied the population boom. Jails and prisons adopted control technologies that would likely have been considered inappropriate and inhumane decades earlier. These included the stun belt and the restraint chair, devices that can cause considerable pain. These also included extensive use of solitary confinement in Supermax prisons, an echo of a method used in 18th- and 19th -century American penitentiaries and discarded because of the dangers it posed to inmate mental health. And, following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, treatment in U.S. prisons seemed to echo overseas in abuse of foreign prisoners in American hands. The Bush administration attempted to declare physical coercion as legal during interrogations, in apparent violation of the Geneva Conventions (Shane, Johnston, & Risen, 2007). What caused such a shift? Much of the change appears to be cultural in nature, connected strongly to forces such as politics, religion, pervasive beliefs about evil and children, popular culture, and economic realities. This also means that American punishment is historically more influenced by such cultural forces than by more seemingly related phenomena such as research on effective punishments, prisoner experience, or crime statistics. That American cultural trends strongly influence American punishment also means that American daily lives respond to shifts in punitiveness. Such evidence of American punishment trends appear in popular television shows and treatment of children.