Waterboarding: the fact of torture cannot be denied
By Aliya Mughal, Senior Press Officer
When the US government was first revealed to have used waterboarding as a means of interrogation, the argument offered in its defence was that it maintained the moral high ground because it did not constitute torture. A growing body of evidence is now emerging that points to a calculated strategy which openly recognised the technique as unlawful and yet side-stepped all other legal precedent by claiming the supremacy of governmental control in wartime.
Waterboarding is torture, unequivocally prohibited by internationally binding human rights law and denounced through the ages. The terminology may be new but the technique is not - the Spanish Inquisition referred to it as the toca, the Japanese in the 1940s and called it the "water cure", the Algerians in the 1950s called it "chiffon", and in South America in the 1980s it was known as "submarino".
The act of waterboarding effectively involves simulating the sense of drowning. A person is strapped to a board, often upside down, with their mouth gagged by a cloth. Streams of water are then poured over the face, causing near suffocation.
MF Consultant Psychiatrist & Psychotherapist Dr William Hopkins describes it as torture in the extreme: "The victim's fear of drowning links with their most primal instinct for survival. The immediate response is to panic as the human reflexes struggle against an inability to breathe. The instinct is to try to escape while at the same time being crushed by the sense that it is futile to try to do so.
"It leaves victims helpless and unable to control an overwhelming sense of fear. They are convinced they are dying, and the lack of oxygen to their brain disables the emotional ability to cope.
"It is a particularly vile experience because of the power the torturer holds over the victim. The torturer creates the anticipatory fear that next time, they will not stop until the victim is dead. No doubt this is what the victims of waterboarding are told as torture never occurs in isolation - the physical suffering is always accompanied by psychological manipulation."
The sense of panic that torture produces can stay with victims for months, years and even a lifetime. The ordeal is re-lived with inescapable intensity, prompting flashbacks and anxiety about a total loss of control and imminent death.
Dr Hopkins adds: "Given what we know from thousands of victims seen by the Medical Foundation over the past two decades, waterboarding - like every other method of torture used by governments - dehumanises the individual and cripples their emotional and physical capacities."
The CIA has openly admitted that waterboarding has been used on at least four individuals since 2001. Around the same time, the US Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel was issuing memos that explicitly sanctioned the use of aggressive tactics, on the premise that the president's constitutional duty to protect the nation trumped international law in wartime. The bar on what was classed as torture was lifted to the point where anything except death, organ failure or the permanent impairment of a significant bodily function was permissible.
Most controversially, the memos suggested that the use of torture could be defended on the basis that it was not inflicted maliciously, but as a legitimate tool of interrogation.
The purpose of torture is to convince the victim that should they not provide the information expected of them, they will suffer. In the terms of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, it is an act "by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person".
Whether the intent is malicious or not is irrelevant, the fact that it is deliberately calculated to cause severe pain and suffering is.
In the face of outcry over his administration's recourse to such abuse, US President George Bush unashamedly maintained that the US is a defender of human rights.
It is a claim that is utterly disingenuous. Human rights are about protecting individuals. Torture is about shattering lives. The two do not equate - decades of history and those who survive torture are living proof of that.