Torture and Terrorism in the Modern World

Kidnapped man in a dark room.

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Torture is the act of inflicting severe pain to force someone to do or say something. It has been used against prisoners-of-war, suspected insurgents, and political prisoners for hundreds of years. In the 1970s and 1980s, governments began to identify a specific form of violence called "terrorism" and to identify prisoners as "terrorists." This is when the history of torture and terrorism begins. While many countries practice torture against political prisoners, only some name their dissidents terrorists or face potential threats from terrorism.

Torture and Terrorism Around the World

Governments have used systematic torture in conflicts with rebel, insurgent, or resistance groups in long-running conflicts since the 1980s. It is questionable whether these should always be called terrorism conflicts. Governments are likely to call their non-state violent opponents terrorists, but only sometimes are they clearly engaged in terrorist activity.

Examples of torture used by governments around the world include the Israeli Supreme Court's "License to Torture" ruling, Russia's use of torture techniques in the Chechnya war, and Egypt's torture of both domestic and foreign terrorists.

Interrogation Practices Considered to be Torture

The issue of torture in relation to terrorism was raised publicly in the United States in 2004 when news of a 2002 Memorandum issued by the Justice Department for the CIA suggested that torturing Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees captured in Afghanistan might be justified to prevent further attacks on the U.S.

A subsequent memo, requested by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003, similarly justified torture on detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

The UN has a clear definition of torture, as determined by a General Assembly resolution that dates to 1984. A scandal erupted in the U.S. media in 2004 when photos from the Abu Ghraib prison surfaced, proving that the American military has been engaged in some practices that break with this resolution. It has since been proven that America uses several specific torture techniques when questioning prisoners. It was reported by "The New Yorker" that these techniques turned deadly at least once at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Legislation Since 9/11

In the years immediately preceding the 9/11 attacks, there was no question that torture as an interrogation practice is out-of-bounds for American military personnel. In 1994, the United States passed a law prohibiting the use of torture by the American military under any circumstances. Furthermore, as a signatory, the U.S. was bound to comply with the 1949 Geneva Convention. This specifically prohibits torturing prisoners-of-war.

After 9/11 and the beginning of a Global War on Terror, the Department of Justice, Department of Defense, and other offices of the Bush Administration issued a number of reports on whether "aggressive detainee interrogation" practices and suspending Geneva Conventions is legitimate in the current context. These documents include the 2002 Justice Department's "torture" memo, the 2003 Defense Department Working Group Report, and the 2006 Military Commissions Act.

International Conventions Against Torture

Despite ongoing debates about whether torture is justified against terrorism suspects, the world community finds torture repugnant under any circumstances. It's not a coincidence that the first of the declarations below appeared in 1948, just after the end of the Second World War. The revelation of Nazi torture and "science experiments" performed on German citizens in World War II produced a global abhorrence of torture conducted by any party — but especially sovereign states.

  • International Conventions Against Torture
  • 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • 1948 European Convention on Human Rights
  • 1955 Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners
  • 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • 1969 American Convention on Human Rights
  • 1975 World Medical Association Declaration of Tokyo
  • 1975 Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Torture
  • 1984 Convention Against Torture


Bybee, Jay S., Assistant Attorney General. "Memorandum for Alberto R. Gonzales Counsel to the President." Standards of Conduct for Interrogation under 18 U.S.C. 2340-2340A, Office of Legal Counsel, U.S. Department of Justice, The National Security Archive, The George Washington University, August 1, 2002, Washington, D.C.

"Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment." Office of the High Commissioner, United Nations Human Rights, OHCHR, December 10, 1984.

Mayer, Jane. "A Deadly Interrogation." The New Yorker, November 6, 2005.

"UN expert alarmed at Israeli Supreme Court's 'license to torture' ruling." Office of the High Commissioner, United Nations Human Rights, OHCHR, February 20, 2018.

Wines, Michael. "Chechens Tell of Torture in Russian Camp." The New York Times, February 18, 2000.