State terrorism vs. Democracy

by Orlando Tizon

CovertAction Quarterly, Summer 2002


The United States is reportedly holding 536 prisoners at Guantanamo. Human rights organizations have expressed serious concern about the treatment of these prisoners, who are being held incommunicado and whose legal status floats in limbo. Furthermore, the so-called war against "terrorism" has been used as an excuse for more repressive measures in the United States. On the international front, governments that have joined the "anti-terrorist" bandwagon have used the war to justify harsher methods, including torture on their own population, especially the opposition. Among the conspicuous examples are Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Israel and Uzbekistan. At the center of the entire discussion is the issue of torture. In the United States a growing number from the media, academe, the legal profession and government have voiced the idea of legalizing some form of torture on suspects who refuse to cooperate with authorities. The reason proffered is that this may be the only way to save many lives.

The trend has disturbed survivors of torture and worried many human rights advocates. In late October 2001, members of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), representing health professionals caring for survivors of torture throughout the world, gathered at the annual Council meeting on the Greek island of Syros. At the conclusion of the four-day conference, the group published the Syros Declaration. The Declaration condemns "the proposed and actual use of torture to extract information from detainees and alleged terrorists" as well as signs that the war was being used by some governments to justify the resort to more repressive methods of social and political control.

Modern torture is designed to destroy the personality of the individual and by extension the community. Ultimately, it is a strategy designed to defeat democratic aspirations at the root, which makes it a tool of choice for unpopular regimes around the world.

As defined by the 1987 UN Convention Against Torture, torture is "an act by which severe pain or suffering whether physical or mental is intentionally inflicted on a person," to obtain information or a confession, punish, intimidate or coerce "or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind." The Convention is concerned with torture by government agents or those with official sanction. Unfortunately, this definition excludes state and religiously sanctioned forms of torture and acts committed by those not in a position of authority, such as paramilitary groups. The Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture defines torture more broadly as "the use of methods upon a person intended to obliterate the personality of the victim or to diminish his physical or mental capacities, even if they do not cause physical or mental anguish."

A survivor of torture from Africa describes his experience: "It is the most dreadful and unforgettable experience in my life. There is nothing worse than torturing and subjecting a helpless person under one's control to unbearable pain." A survivor from another country writes: "To this day, I feel the pain and suffering from this inhuman and barbaric treatment that was meted out to me for my belief and for the freedom of my people." It is not unusual for a person being tortured to beg the torturers to kill her. Another survivor says: "Only the person who has been tortured can tell how painful it is. The people who torture you don't let you die and they don't let you be alive."

Today the methods that torturers use are highly sophisticated, applying the latest scientific findings and technology-a far cry from the wheel and the rack of medieval times. Current methods efficiently cause pain while keeping the victim alive and avoiding visible body marks. Witness the following instructions: "The interrogator should use his power over the resistant subject's physical environment to disrupt patterns of response, not to create them. Meals and sleep granted irregularly, in more than abundance or less than adequacy, the shifts occurring on no discernible time pattern will normally disorient an interrogatee and sap his will to resist more effectively than a sustained deprivation leading to debility." Torturers today use a combination of methods to terrorize and break down the individual, including physical, psychological and sexual.


The effects of torture are complex. While wounds, bruises and broken bones heal over time, the deeper psychological trauma often last for a lifetime. Anxiety, depression, insomnia, nightmares, memory difficulties, social withdrawal, irritability, feelings of helplessness, affective numbing, flashbacks, shame, mistrust, ruminations, unexplained pain, the feeling of being permanently injured and changed, many medical complaints, and digestive and sexual difficulties, are some of the most common symptoms. All these, especially the feeling of being permanently changed, are part of the contemporary torturer's objective: to destroy the victim's humanity through a systematic infliction of severe pain and extreme psychological humiliation.

Survivors of torture frequently have difficulties in trusting themselves and others and in building relationships. A number of therapists hold that disempowerment and disconnection from others are the core experiences of the psychological trauma of torture, which are expressed through depression, fear, feelings of isolation and powerlessness. Thus torture affects not only the individual, but the family and the entire community.

Amnesty International's medical groups discovered three things after collecting and analyzing the findings of twenty-five years of work with survivors of torture:

1. Torture continued to persecute the survivors many years later with its physical and mental sequelae.

2. In modern times it is not aimed primarily at the extraction of information, as commonly portrayed in films. Its real aim is to break down the victim's personality and identity.

3. Torture is aimed at strong personalities, people who have stood up against repressive regimes. Breaking down these persons effectively cows the rest of the community into silence.

In the twenty-first century the practice of torture persists and is widespread. According to human rights groups, it is practiced by state officials in more than 150 countries, and is widespread in more than half. Ironically, following the antimonarchical revolution of 1979 in Iran, which overthrew the U.S.-installed regime of the Shah, the new Islamic Republic soon led the world in both innovation and use of torture. "According to Amnesty International, the United Nations, and Human Rights Watch, in a world in which prison brutality was rampant, Iran outdid most other countries in its systematic use of physical torture."

Torture as practiced today is primarily for the purpose of maintaining unpopular governments in power. "We therefore refer to torture as an instrument of power. Our research has shown that the torturers who work for governments try to break down the victims' identity, and this affects the family and the society as well." Thus the main purpose of torture is not to extract a confession but to break the individual's humanity and make an example of the victim before the community and thereby suppress all political opposition. Torture is the ultimate weapon for terrorizing and controlling the individual human being and the community. When members of a community are made powerless and lose trust in themselves and in one another, building a democratic community is rendered extremely difficult and complex. Torture then is an instrument to destroy democratic aspirations and actions, as history has clearly shown.


"No one shall be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 5; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 7. This was reaffirmed by the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). The prohibition against torture is one of the most absolute in international law, admitting of no exceptions. CAT Article 2.2 states: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture." Furthermore, the Convention against Torture, Article 3.1, states that: "No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture."

124 countries have signed the Convention against Torture and 147 the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The United States ratified the Convention Against Torture in October 1994 which went into force for the United States on November 20, 1994. As a party to the Convention against Torture, the United States has to submit periodic reports regarding its compliance with CAT to the Committee against Torture of the UN.

In 1999 the United States submitted an Initial Report to the Committee against Torture. The Committee responded in May 2000 by commending among other things the extensive legal protection against torture and efforts of U.S. authorities to achieve transparency of its institutions and practices. The Committee, however, expressed concern at certain failures to incorporate the terms of CAT into U.S. Iaw.

The Committee expressed concern about the use of stun belts and restraint chairs as methods of restraining those in custody; the "excessively harsh regime" in U.S. supermax prisons; allegations of sexual assault on female prisoners by corrections officers and the degrading conditions under which female prisoners are held; the number of cases of police ill-treatment of civilians and by prison guards, much of which "seems to be based on race discrimination"; children held with adults in U.S. prisons and juvenile offenders held on death row.

The Committee recommended that the U.S. enact a federal crime of torture consistent with Article 1 of CAT and withdraw its "reservations, declarations and understandings" regarding the treaty; abolish the use of stun belts and restraint chairs against people in custody; take steps so that those who violate the Convention are prosecuted and punished, especially those who are motivated by discrimination or sexual gratification; consider declaring in favor of Article 22 of CAT which would recognize the competence of the Committee to consider communications from individuals who claim that their rights under the treaty have been violated; ensure that minors are not held in prison with the regular prison population.

Article 22 is an important measure to ensure that states observe their obligations. But before the UN Committee can act on an individual's communication, the State Party should have recognized the competence of the Committee and the individual should have exhausted all local proceedings. In April 2000, 40 countries had recognized the competence of the Committee out of 129 that have signed or ratified the Convention.

Despite international legislation the use of torture continues to expand today, mainly because of the globalization of torture through trade, the free movement of torturers and technology, and the ineffectiveness of international legal sanctions.


Torturers and governments who employ them are increasingly using sophisticated instruments and the torture trade is growing, Amnesty International reported last year. The instruments range from high voltage electric shock stun weapons, chemical crowd control devices and old-style restraint devices. Amnesty Inter-national reports that the global trade in high voltage electro-shock batons, shields, stun guns and stun belts has been growing in the 1990s. This includes "tasers" which can shoot fishhook darts on wires into victims from 30 feet away. When the dart hits the victim's body, a high voltage current is released through the nervous system incapacitating the person sometimes for as long as 15 minutes. Electric stun belts are strapped to prisoners and operated by remote control, sending up to 50,000 volts through the prisoner's kidneys for up to eight seconds. Electro-shock technology began in the United States and has spread to Asia, Europe and South Africa. In the 1970s there were only two companies known to market these weapons, there are now over 150 worldwide operating in 22 countries manufacturing or marketing them. Since there are no stringent controls to ensure that these instruments are not used for torture, human rights organizations have asked governments to ban their export.

More than 80 U.S. companies were involved in the manufacture, marketing and export of equipment used to torture over the last decade, more than any other country. Amnesty International released its analysis of Department of Commerce data on $97 million in U.S. export licenses granted since 1997 for "crowd control equipment," a category that includes electroshock weapons and restraints. The analysis furthermore revealed that the major recipients of these exports were Saudi Arabia, Russia, Taiwan, Brazil, Israel, and Egypt, all countries known to use these instruments for torture. The instruments were also exported to Sweden and Switzerland where the possession of electroshock weapons is illegal.

A major factor in the global proliferation of torture is the worldwide expansion of its training to the military, security and police forces. Among the main providers of such training are the United States, China, France, Russia, and the UK. Much of this training is in secret and kept from the eyes of the public and legislatures of recipient countries. States, both donor and recipient, are careful to hide the details of this training, so that it is extremely difficult to find out what the training curriculum includes, or who the instructors and the students are.

Occasionally, as in the case of the School of the Americas, at Fort Benning, Georgia, information becomes publicly available, due to the untiring efforts of human rights activists. In September 1996, the U.S. Department of Defense released information that between 1982 and 1991, intelligence training manuals were used that advocated execution, torture, beatings and blackmail. The manuals written in Spanish were used to train thousands of police and military forces in Latin and Central America.

The role of the CIA in the research and development of torture techniques and the training of torturers is well-documented. In 1997, the CIA released two of its torture manuals under an FOIA request filed by the Baltimore Sun. The reports were titled "KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation-July 1963," and "Human Resources Exploitation Training Manual-1983." (Baltimore Sun, January 27-28, 1997)

Another example of the known involvement of U.S. agencies in torture is the case of Operation Condor which coordinated the military intelligence operations against opponents of the regimes of Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay, Jorge Videla of Argentina, Hugo Banzer of Bolivia led by former Secretary of State Kissinger and General Vernon Walters. Documents regarding the operations were discovered by Dr. Martin Almada, a Paraguayan lawyer who survived torture under the dictatorship of Stroessner.

An important factor in the spread of torture worldwide is the global movement of torturers. Each year thousands of immigrants, refugees and tourists flock to the United States. Yet U.S. officials and human rights groups know that mingled among them are many human rights offenders, including torturers and murderers, who find their way here and enjoy a good life in the United States. U.S. Iaw provides no legal mechanisms for officials to remove known offenders or deny them entry into the U.S. The Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco has identified 15 alleged violators and is pushing for their prosecution in U.S. courts under the 1994 torture treaty. The organization has identified 60 human rights abusers living in the country and estimates that 7,000 have immigrated here. A well-known case that the CJA took up is the case against two former generals from El Salvador, Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanwa, Director-General of the El Salvador National Guard and later Minister of Defense and Jose Guillermo Garcia, also a former Minister of Defense. The two were charged together in both cases. The two were sued in U.S. District Court in Florida by relatives of four American churchwomen raped and shot to death by Salvadoran troops in 1980. Four survivors of torture from El Salvador have also sued these former generals and are waiting for their case to be scheduled by a Florida court. The recently released PBS documentary "Justice and the Generals" is highly recommended.

I personally know of several military and police officers with known human rights abuse records who served the regime of Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and immigrated to the United States after the fall of the Marcos regime. Some of them came armed with diplomatic passports.


The stark reality is that, until recently, torturers from countries or regimes toward which Washington is favorably disposed have enjoyed an unofficial grant of immunity for their crimes. Until torturers and their sponsors are held accountable, there is little the international community can do to abolish the practice. One problem is the major contradiction in the implementation of the Convention Against Torture, that "while it is left to the contracting states to implement the Convention, torture is normally practiced with the sanction of the government and by those at the apex of political power." Hence, the impunity of torturers and the relative ineffectiveness of international legal sanctions.

The UN Commission on Human Rights established an open-ended working group to draft an Optional Protocol to CAT. The Protocol would establish a global system of inspection and allow the UN Committee against Torture to carry out regular, independent, impartial and unrestricted visits to all places in those countries ratifying the Protocol where torture or ill-treatment is suspected. This visiting mechanism is seen as a means to prevent torture and other forms of ill-treatment. Most governments have resisted the idea of an international visiting mechanism for fear that this would infringe on their national sovereignty and interfere with their own criminal justice system.

Another attempt to strengthen international legal sanctions is the establishment of the International Criminal Court that would have jurisdiction over genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Judge Baltazar Garzon who sought the extradition of former Chilean dictator Pinochet emphasized that the court will not try countries but individuals. The United States was one of seven countries, including China and Israel voting "no" when 120 countries met in Rome in June 1998 to approve a statute creating the International Criminal Court. On April 11, 2002, sixty-six nations ratified the treaty, formally creating the court. The countries ratifying the treaty include Britain, France, Germany and Canada. India and China have not signed the treaty, Russia signed but did not ratify it. The Bush administration has refused to support the ICC, reasoning that since such a court would not be accountable to any review body, it would hold unchecked power, able to prosecute U.S. citizens and officials. Among Bush administration officials, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has especially expressed the strongest opposition to the treaty on the grounds that its flaws would make it more difficult for U.S. military involvement in the world at a time when it is carrying on a war against "terrorism."

A loophole that certain countries have used to get around the Convention Against Torture is the "outsourcing" of torture, either by extraditing suspects to friendly countries where they can be tortured without causing difficulties for the authorities, or by accepting suspects who have been made to confess under torture in other countries. A recent case is that of Abdul Hakim Murad who was turned over to American authorities after he confessed under torture by Philippine interrogators to blowing up a local airliner. The U.S. has also bypassed extradition procedures and legal formalities by releasing suspects to countries whose intelligence services have close ties to the CIA and routinely practice torture, in order to avoid the charge of practicing torture. U.S. authorities make an exception to the CAT prohibition of extraditing suspects to countries where they will be tortured. If a receiving country gives "diplomatic assurances" that the person will not be tortured, this is enough for the U.S. to extradite the person.

Another disturbing event is the CIA relaxation of 1995 Congressionally-imposed restrictions that limit the recruitment of agents with unsavory backgrounds. All these create more obstacles to the defense of human rights and will make the struggle to end torture more difficult.


A final issue that I must address concerns the treatment and rehabilitation of survivors of torture. The treatment of survivors of torture is fairly recent, starting in the 1970s with Danish initiatives and ideas. The National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs estimates that there are about 500,000 survivors of torture now residing in the United States.

Mental health professionals more and more realize the importance of the issue of torture and the need to understand it. They have seen that people can substantially recover from its effects. A recent important development in the research and treatment of torture trauma is the understanding that survivors of torture are not just subjects to be observed, evaluated and treated. Survivors must be included in the evaluation and analyses for meaningful research and must actively participate in their own treatment for this to be successful.

In the summer of 1998 a small group of survivors of torture met to commemorate the UN International Day in Support of Torture Victims and Survivors on June 26. This was the beginning of Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC). Last year it changed its name to TASSC International. It is the only international organization founded by and for survivors and is dedicated to end the practice of torture wherever it occurs.

The organization operates independently of any political ideology, government, economic interest or religious creed and is guided by two principles: that torture is a crime against humanity and that survivors are the strongest and most effective voice in the campaign to end the practice of torture. Survivors in TASSC International build communities of healing among survivors and their immediate family members and work to influence U.S. and international policy related to torture by advocacy and collective action with other groups and individuals. They believe that the most effective way to build a world where future generations will live free of the plague of torture is to work for its prevention by changing public policy, domestic and international, with the help of an informed public. Ending torture wherever it is practiced is a precondition to ensuring life in a free and democratic world for all.


Orlando Tizon, Ph.D., was arrested on September 21, 1982 in Davoo City, Philippines, for defending the human rights of the rural poor. For three weeks he was kept blindfolded and incommunicado. He endured beatings, interrogations, mock execution and solitary confinement during his imprisonment. He was re/eased in April of 1986. Shortly thereafter, he immigrated to the U.S. where he received treatment and completed a doctorate in sociology. He is assistant director of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) in Washington, D.C.

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