Definitions of 'Torture'

  • 7 December 2005
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How the US has restricted and distorted the definition of torture

There are numerous reports that Rice had been part of the discussions in the White House on redefining torture. There is no document she signed saying such a thing, but she was part of the policy discussion that led to Alberto Gonzalez' letter. Rice seems to have adopted the definition proposed by Gonzalez, the president's legal counsel (now the US Attorney General). Gonzalez's definition of torture was that it "must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death."

This is significantly different to the UN convention (as outlined below).

The US administration has carefully chosen its words to sound as though they are denying torture, while actually not denying that it is being done by US forces. In Rice's meetings with European officials, Rice has said that the US does not engage in torture, but in earlier statements, in which she has denied that the actions, such as water boarding (holding someone's head under water long enough for them to believe they are drowning), can be called torture.

In October 2004, Rice wrote to the US Senate to get them not to pass a torture limitation bill and that at her confirmation hearings, she refused to define torture.

This is the Q&A from her hearing. The questioner is Senator Chris Dodd, democrat of Connecticut:

SEN. DODD: Is it your view, as a human matter, that water- boarding and the use, as we saw, in prisons in Iraq of nudity -- is that torture in your personal view, as a nominee here for the --

MS. RICE: Senator, I'm not going to speak to any specific interrogation techniques, but let me talk about Abu Ghraib, because that was not acceptable.

SEN. DODD: I'd like to just get your views on just a simple matter. It's a simple question I'm asking. I'm... asking about some very specific techniques that were used, whether or not you consider them to be torture or not.

MS. RICE: Senator, the determination of whether interrogation techniques are consistent with our international obligations and American law are made by the Justice Department. I don't want to comment on any specific interrogation techniques. I don't think that would be appropriate, and I think it would not be very good for American security.

The CIA allows "enhanced interrogation techniques" including shaking, striking, subjecting detainees to cold, and making them believe they are drowning (known as water boarding). The White House has sought an exemption for the CIA from an approved Senate amendment that would ban "cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners."

Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Adopted by UN General Assembly resolution 39/46 of 10 December 1984 entry into force 26 June 1987

Article 1

1.The term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

2. This article is without prejudice to any international instrument or national legislation which does or may contain provisions of wider application.

Article 2

1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.

2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political in stability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.