The UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which came into force in 1987 and to which more than two thirds of the world's nations are parties, bans torture and other abusive treatment of any person, as well as forcibly transferring a person to a nation when there is reason to believe that the person will be tortured. Parties to the treaty must periodically report and answer questions on their compliance before the Committee against Torture in Geneva. The convention restates much of an earlier General Assembly declaration (1975), and the earlier Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966; in force, 1976) also banned torture. In addition, agreements sponsored by regional international organizations also forbid the practice, as do the Geneva Conventions. Despite these international agreements, Amnesty International indicated (2007) that there were reports of the use of torture or other forms of abuse by security or police forces in 102 nations in 2006.
The utility of torture in obtaining useful information from individuals is a matter of debate, and the arguments on both sides rely on anecdotal evidence. Torture is most often justified, even by those who oppose its use generally, in situations where interrogators seek to obtain information from a suspect who has knowledge of an imminent and devastating attack. Whether a terror suspect who had knowledge of a “ticking timebomb” would divulge any useful information under torture likely depends on the psychology of the suspect. That tortured individuals divulge false information is known to be true, and an instance of this was reported to have contributed to the Bush administration's belief that Iraq had helped train militant Islamic terrorists. Studies also have shown that extreme stress can detrimentally affect memory, suggesting that torture, especially if prolonged, might in fact impair recall.
The United States, which regularly denounces the use of torture and abuse internationally in the State Dept.'s well-regarded
U.S. officials subsequently (2004) issued guidelines that called torture abhorrent and retreated on many points from earlier memorandums, but it remained unclear to what degree Bush administration considered the CIA to be bound by U.S. law and international agreements. Revelations concerning Bush administration memorandums and practices led Senator John McCain, who had himself been tortured while a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, to seek (2005) legislation banning cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of terror suspects in U.S. custody, no matter where they are held. It was reported in 2007 that in 2005 the Justice Dept. secretly approved the use of harsh interrogation tactics, including simulated drowning (“waterboarding”), by the CIA. In 2009 it was reported that that the treatment of at least one person held at Guantánamo Bay had met the legal definition of torture and that a secret 2007 International Committee of the Red Cross report had concluded that CIA treatment of some detainees constituted torture. In 2008 President Bush vetoed legislation that would have required the CIA to adhere to U.S. army interrogation standards, but in 2009 President Obama banned any methods that could be considered torture. A Senate Intelligence Committee report whose conclusions were publicly released in 2014 provided details on the use of torture by the CIA in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, relying on the CIA's own documents, and asserted that the CIA's claims of the usefulness of brutal interrogation were contradicted by its own documents. The Senate report largely echoed a nonpartisan review of interrogation and detention practices after 2001 that was released in 2013.
See K. J. Greenberg and J. L. Dratel, ed.,
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