Torture and Terrorism in the Modern World

Kidnapped man in a dark room
Kidnapped man in a dark room. Bliznetsov/Getty Images

Torture inflicts severe pain to force someone to do or say something and 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.

Detainee 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.

Terrorism and Torture: Selected Reports and 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 American military under any circumstances. Furthermore, the U.S. was bound, as a signatory, to comply with the 1949 Geneva Convention, which 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. Here are rundowns of a few key documents.

  • 2002: Justice Department"Torture Memo"
  • 2003: Defense Department Working Group Report, Detainee Interrogation in the Global War on Terror
  • 2006: Bush and Senate Agree to New Legislation
  • 2006: Military Commissions Act

International Conventions Against Torture:

Despite ongoing debates about whether torture is justified against terrorism suspects, the world community finds torture consistently 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, anytime, anywhere, 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

Also see: Human Rights and Terrorism: An Overview \ Torture & Interrogation in a Time of Terror: Analysis of Legal Issues