In Britain it is a medieval tourist attraction; in most of the world it is an everyday horror.







In western Europe from the late 19th century torture largely died out as a police and judicial method of extracting confessions. In Britain it largely died out after the 17th century. The British standard became the model for imitation throughout the civilized world. However, it never died out completely. It re-entered from the colonial world and from Russia.

The classic 20th century dictatorships revived torture as a routine means of political terrorism and it has become the rule in all dictatorships, and even in some countries with some electoral processes.

In the 1930s torture spread from the communist regimes to the similar (but right wing) dictatorships in Germany, Italy, Spain and in several states of eastern Europe. That is, it was characteristic of fascism and totalitarianism. Following the second world war torture lived on in the colonial wars, such as the French in Indochina and Algeria where ex-Nazis taught the techniques to French military police for use on Algerian independence fighters. There are reports that the techniques were passed on to American "allies" in central and southern America, perhaps through military training schools in Panama operated by American secret intelligence services. Many graduates of the military School of the Americas seized power in their countries and were associated with torture.

Torture was then practiced by "anti-communist" forces in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay. Several Asian states are reported to allow torture by the police and military. These include: Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India but also several south east Asian countries. In some cases torture is not so much a government policy as the result of neglecting to supervise the police. However, all the remaining classic dictatorships use it as a policy to intimidate potential opponents. These include: Burma, China, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, North Korea.

The KGB (Security Department) of the USSR also maintained torture schools which taught secret police forces in eastern Europe, Yemen, Angola, Mozambique, the ANC (South Africa) and many other countries. Some of this work was contracted to East Germany.

Even states with a generally good record may allow torture to arise in extreme political conditions. France during the Algerian war, and Britain in the colonies, such as Kenya during the Mau Mau war, and Northern Ireland are examples. In both of these cases democratic scrutiny and international pressure causes supervision to prevent torture becoming a habit.

United States police forces use more violence than would be expected in a civilized country. The US has been accused of Torture in its prison camps in Guantanamo, Cuba, and in Afghanistan, Iraq (Abu Ghraib) and other countries.

Amnesty International is an important reporter of torture.

The Redress Trust has listed in 1994 the following countries as having "reports of widespread and constant use of torture" :





This list is not necessarily complete.

Useful reading

Philippe Sands - Torture Team
How the US government lifted the ban on torture

Torture Team: Rumsfeld's Memo and the Betrayal of American Values

Christopher Hitchens - Arguably

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens: Selected Essays

Includes an essay on the effects of "waterboarding".



Possible Solutions

An active democracy is probably the only way of preventing torture. However, it is disturbing that in western states a large proportion of the population apparently enjoys watching videos of torture (and the tv series "24" in which torture is represented as a way to obtain information).

Psychological experiments have shown that many ordinary people, even in states without routine torture, can be persuaded to torture people. (Milgram) Thus the institutional safeguards are important. These include Habeas Corpus by which prisoners must be shown to a judge and not held without due process of law. Public inspection of prisons is also important.

The signs are that any state can fall into the habit of torture if the citizens do not watch out. Any social group which becomes seen as inferior may be tortured informally by police or prison guards, even in democracies. (These include: Racial or national groups; people believed to have hostile beliefs or political opinions; suspected terrorists).

There have been rumors that the US forces in Afghanistan, and possibly in Guantanamo Bay where suspected Al Qaeda terrorists are held have been torturing prisoners, apparently safe from challenge by the US courts or the International Criminal Court (which the US refuses to recognise).

Last revised 12/10/11


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