Conclusion: What is the relationship between levels of development and torture?


Torture Reality ≠ Torture Portrayal

Amnesty International describes torture as “A global crisis of barbarism, failure, and fear” (“Torture in 2014”). I think we can all agree that torture is indeed a global crisis and an international human rights issue. The question remains, however, do we apply Amnesty’s description to all acts of torture equally? Is torture in developed, particularly Western, countries more accepted than torture in the Global South?

The prevalence of torture throughout both developed and developing nations suggests that levels of development do not directly correlate with the occurrence of torture. The U.S, for example, continues to use torture in the name of national security and intelligence gathering; Spain and New Zealand join the U.S with their use of torture by law enforcement; Germany, France, and the United Kingdom all continue to accept and utilize intelligence that was obtained through illegal torture. All of these (and many more) developed, Western countries have direct and explicit ties to torture. But how often do you hear (via government officials, news outlets, etc.) about torture in these countries?

Research conducted on the media portrayal of Abu Ghraib reveals significant deficiencies in the reporting of torture by U.S news outlets. The research report explains:

Even when provided with considerable photographic and documentary evidence and the critical statements of governmental and nongovernmental actors, the nation’s leading media proved unable or unwilling to construct a coherent challenge to the administration’s claims about its policies on torturing detainees (Bennett et al, 2006).

The lack of demand for change by the U.S media directly results in a weakened perception of torture by U.S citizens. It has been established that torture occurs at all levels of development; the portrayal of torture, however, appears to play a significant role in the determining what actions receive attention, and what is categorized/ accepted as torture.


A Blurred Line

Though there is an international definition of torture, established by the UN Convention Against Torture, there remains a blurred line on what actions constitute torture. In a recent interview with NBC, John Brennan, director of the CIA, stated that the “agency will not engage in harsh enhanced interrogation practices” such as waterboarding (Engel & Windrem, 2016). In response to comments made by presidential candidates, Brennan said, “I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I’ve heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure” (Engel & Windrem, 2016). Not once throughout the interview did Brennan refer to CIA actions as “torture.” He continually used the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” when discussing the horrific acts of the CIA.

Even Lester Holt, the reporter summarizing the interview said, “Waterboarding is a controversial technique used in the past that many call torture” and that the CIA would no longer implement “harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding” (Engel & Windrem, 2016). This rhetoric leaves dangerous room for the possibility that waterboarding is not actually torture (which we know is incorrect). When viewers hear “enhanced interrogation” over and over, “torture” begins to feel less significant. It was not until the very end of the report that the word “torture” was actually used. Waterboarding is indeed torture, yet some continue to refuse to call it what it is.

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz says he doesn’t believe that Waterboarding is torture. Waterboarding undoubtedly is an act which inflicts severe pain and suffering with the intent of obtaining intelligence, therefore falling under the UN definition of torture (“United Nations”). Cruz said, “Well under the definition of torture, no it [waterboarding] is not” (Kampmark, 2016).

The UN’s definition of torture is just loose enough to provide governments with grey area. Personally, I feel that “pain and suffering” should be descriptive enough for individuals to know what actions constitute torture. When it comes down to national security, however, those words take on a new weight and continue to be exploited, manipulated, and redefined by governments across the world.


Western Nationalism & Rationalization

As I began to explore in my post on Guantanamo Bay, and again in my post on media portrayal of torture, the United States attempts to legitimize torture in the name of national security. The rhetoric surrounding much of Western torture is centered on the safety of citizens. Governments harness the fear of their citizens, and present torture (what they call “enhanced interrogation”) as a necessary avenue of intelligence gathering. Even though the CIA senate torture report deemed Guantanamo torture unsuccessful at gathering useful and/or accurate information, governments use fear and nationalism to gain the backing of their constituents.

The 2016 U.S presidential elections have focused heavily on torture and its use to combat terrorism. Republican candidates generally support “enhanced interrogation” (read: torture) against suspected threats, and have exemplified the exploitation of fear that Western governments frequently use. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in particular have voiced (loudly) their beliefs that torture is absolutely necessary for U.S and international security.

In several GOP debates the topic of torture has been discussed; almost always, these discussions frame torture as something that the government has no choice but to perpetrate. Ted Cruz once stated, “I would use whatever enhanced interrogation methods we could to keep this country safe” (Engel & Windrem, 2016). Trump has said on multiple occasions, “I would bring back waterboarding and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” (Engel & Windrem, 2016). Following the recent Brussels attack, Trump stated that he would close U.S borders and, “would try to expand the laws to go beyond waterboarding” (Minnis, 2016). Even in these few examples you find the appeal to fear; the threat that without torture the lives of U.S citizens are in danger.

Trump’s rhetoric specifically focuses on the other-ing of religious groups, ethnic/racial groups, and nations. He presents certain groups as un-American and a threat to national security, which has detrimental consequences. Of course Isis is a threat, but not every Muslim is a threat; of course some terrorist attacks happen by immigrants, but not every immigrant is a terrorist. By focusing on an “us vs. them” plot, Trump is able to convince a large group of Americans that torture is necessary. He uses his slogan of “Make America Great Again” to promote blinding nationalism.

The reality of torture is that it is not necessary, or even consistently effective, for preserving national security. Much of the Western torture I found was perpetrated by some of the highest government officials, of which rely on the rationalization of torture in the name of America’s safety. While these Western countries are torturing behind locked doors “in the name of national security” they are simultaneously demonizing non-Western countries (ex: Nigeria, Syria, Mexico, the Philippines, etc.) for torturing (“Torture in 2014”).


Development & Torture: A Summary

I began my first blog post a tad unsure of where my research would take me. My research has enlightened me immensely and exemplified the discord between the portrayal of torture and the reality of its occurrence. Here are some of the key findings, highlights, and points I hope you takeaway from my posts:

  • Torture is not directly related to the level of development of a country; it occurs across the globe in countries of varying development.
  • Media portrayal of torture significantly impacts the public’s perception, tolerance, and categorization of torture; the portrayal of torture is not necessarily accurate to reality.
  • Mutua’s “Savage, Victim, Savior complex” can help explain the media portrayal of torture (Mutua, 2001).
  • Western/ developed torture is more widely accepted, while non-Western/ developing torture is demonized and criticized.
  • Western torture often relies on nationalism and rationalization to legitimize government use of torture.

Thank you for reading and learning with me throughout these posts!



Bennett, W., Lawrence, R., & Livingston, S. (2006). None Dare Call It Torture: Indexing and the Limits of Press Independence in the Abu Ghraib Scandal. Journal of Communication, 56, 467-485. Retrieved April 12, 2016.

Engel, R., & Windrem, R. (2016, April 11). Director Brennan: CIA Won’t Waterboard Again — Even if Ordered by Future President. NBC. Retrieved April 12, 2016, from

Kampmark, B., Dr. (2016, April 9). Keeping Torture “Fashionable”: The US Presidential Elections. Retrieved April 12, 2016, from

Minnis, G. (2016, March 23). Donald Trump’s Brussels Response: Close US Borders, Use Torture Tactics. Latin Post. Retrieved April 12, 2016, from

Mutua, M. (2001). Savage, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights. Harvard International Law Journal, 42(1), 201-209. Retrieved March 3, 2015.

United Nations, Convention Against Torture. (1994, July 16). Hrweb. Retrieved March 3, 2016, from

Torture in 2014: 30 Years of Broken Promises. (2014). Retrieved April 12, 2016, from

The Media Portrayal of Torture & Its Consequences


Shhh…Don’t say the “t” word

When reading articles regarding U.S torture, you are almost guaranteed to find adjectives such as “brutal,” “harsh,” and “extreme” used to describe the torture by the CIA at Guantanamo (Mirkinson, 2014). Of course, we can’t forget the “enhanced interrogation” phrase that many also like to throw around. Though the findings of the CIA Senate Torture Report concludes that the actions at Guantanamo were indeed torture, it continues to be difficult to find a news outlet that will use the forbidden “t” word.

With the release of the senate report there was naturally an influx of articles and news reports on Guantanamo. Jack Mirkinson of the Huffington Post explains that though the information is newly released, what isn’t new is “the media’s persistent dance around the word at the heart of the entire story: ‘torture’” (Mirkinson, 2014). He references one study, which found that when the Bush administration began using waterboarding as an interrogation method, many major media outlets stopped defining the practice as torture (Mirkinson, 2014). Mirkinson provides examples of some of the country’s largest news outlets, including MSNBC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, all of which avoided using the word torture (Mirkinson, 2014).

Where the word torture is most commonly found is in alternative news outlets such as Truthout, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to providing independent news and commentary on a daily basis” (Ahmed, 2014). In an article titled, The United States Is Committing Brutal Acts of Torture Right Now, Truthout writer Nafeez Ahmed writes, “Media coverage of the Senate report has largely whitewashed the extent to which torture has always been an integral and systematic intelligence practice since the Second World War…” (Ahmed, 2014). AlternativeNews, The Real News Network, and AlterNet are all additional independent news outlets that not only use the word torture but also explicitly call out mainstream media for failing to do so. The problem remains though, that a large portion, I would suspect the majority, of Americans rely on mainstream news outlets for their information.


The Double Standard

The rhetoric used by the U.S mainstream media in regards to foreign torture, on the other hand, is almost astonishing. One New York Time’s headline reads, Organizations Say Torture Is Widespread in Libya Jails (Stack, 2012). A Washington Post article claims, China must be pressed to end torture by police (Wang, 2015). The list can continue for pages, with no hesitation from U.S news outlets to use the word torture when referring to other countries.

What is particularly interesting is the lack of consistency in U.S reporting. A study from the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard reveals a significant shift in the way that U.S news outlets have covered torture. From the 1930’s until 2004, newspapers that reported on waterboarding almost always considered it torture; “The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles” (Linkins, 2010). Following 2002 (around the time when the Bush administration began implementing waterboarding), those same newspapers rarely referred to waterboarding as torture; “The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 1.4% of articles. The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles. The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1.6% of articles. USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture” (Linkins, 2010).

When it comes to other countries’ use of waterboarding, the study showed no reluctance to use the “t” word:

In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles when the United States was the perpetrator (Linkins, 2010).


Development and Torture

Spain and New Zealand join the United States in the group of developed countries that use torture (Gallagher, 2014 & Brooking, 2014). Additionally, the Human Rights Watch has accused France, Germany and the United Kingdom of using intelligence that was gathered by using torture (“No Questions,” 2010). There are, of course, numerous other developed countries that use torture but receive minimal attention (Noack, 2014). Why then, is there little mainstream media coverage of these developed, particularly Western, countries?

It seems that Western, especially American, news outlets are the groups afraid to call Western torture what it truly is. CJ Werlemen, a writer for the Middle East Eye, has no hesitation in calling out the U.S, writing, “Americans are pro-torture and proud of it” (Werleman, 2016). An article in the Iran Daily is titled, Guantanamo prisoner recounts ordeal, tortured by guards (“Guantanamo prisoner,” 2016). To my surprise, alongside Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, Cuba, Burundi, China, Vietnam, Syria, Eritrea, and Iran, the United Nations Human Rights Council recently called out the U.S and U.K for torture (“United Nations,” 2016).

Other organizations and media outlets, though, place a much larger emphasis on developing, non-Western countries that torture. One article by The Guardian is titled, Afghanistan officials sanctioned murder, torture and rape, says report (Graham-Harrison, 2015). Even Amnesty International uses different rhetoric when discussing U.S torture versus discussing other countries that torture. Their headline for U.S torture reads, for example, U.S Needs Accountability for Torture (“Demand Accountability”). Their Mexico torture campaign, on the other hand, reads, Torture in Mexico is Out of Control, followed by horrific descriptions of Mexican torture (“Police and soldiers”). “Out of Control” is quite a powerful phrase and creates a very specific picture of Mexican torture. Amnesty’s current torture campaign states that their “priority countries” are Mexico, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, coincidentally all non-Western countries (“Global Campaign”).

The studies, headlines, and articles show a clear focus on torture in developing, non-Western countries. Though torture occurs in countless developed nations, there is a lack of demand for developed, Western countries’ accountability. The rhetoric surrounding torture in developing, non-Western countries convey barbarism and ruthlessness while weaker words such as “brutal,” “enhanced,” or “harsh” are used to describe Western torture. This language choice is powerful, influencing perceptions and ultimately categorization. Though the same actions may be occurring in two different countries, the way in which each is portrayed impacts the public’s tolerance for those actions. Hearing that the U.S is using enhanced interrogation, for example, is much different than hearing that torture in Mexico is out of control. This discrepancy determines which countries get demonized and which countries are left to perpetrate torture behind closed doors. Hearing “out of control” conveys urgency, but isn’t the CIA’s torture at Guantanamo also “out of control?” When the media, activist organizations, and news sources stop considering an action to be torture, is that action no longer torture? Why does media portrayal appear to supersede international law? Perhaps most importantly, why are developing, non-Western countries portrayed as savage, while developing countries are also committing horrific acts?


Next Week: A summary of findings and conclusion on the relationship between development and torture.



Ahmed, N. (2014, December 23). The United States Is Committing Brutal Acts of Torture Right Now. Truthout. Retrieved April 7, 2016, from

Brooking, R. (2013, September 30). 80% of countries use torture – New Zealand is one. Pundit. Retrieved April 7, 2016, from–-new-zealand-is-one

Country Classification (Rep.). (2014). Retrieved April 7, 2016, from World Economic Situation and Prospects website:

Demand Accountability for Torture and Abuse. (n.d.). Retrieved April 7, 2016, from

Gallagher, E. (2014, February 4). Spain: More than 6,600 cases of torture or ill-treatment by police since 2004. Revolution News. Retrieved April 7, 2016, from

Graham-Harrison, E. (2015, March 3). Afghanistan officials sanctioned murder, torture and rape, says report. The Guardian. Retrieved April 7, 2016, from

Global Campaign to Stop Torture – Focus on priority countries. (n.d.). Retrieved April 7, 2016, from

Guantanamo prisoner recounts ordeal, tortured by guards. (2014, December 14). The Iran Daily. Retrieved April 7, 2016, from

Linkins, J. (2010, June 30). Once America Started Waterboarding, Major Newspapers Stopped Referring To It As Torture, Says Study. The Huffington Post. Retrieved April 7, 2016, from

Mirkinson, J. (2014, April 14). The Media Is Still Dancing Around The Word ‘Torture’. The Huffington Post. Retrieved April 7, 2016, from

No Questions Asked (Rep.). (2010, June 29). Retrieved April 7, 2016, from Human Rights Watch website:

Noack, R. (2014, December 12). Most countries are against torture – but most have also been accused of it. The Washington Post. Retrieved April 7, 2016, from

Police and soldiers rape, beat up, suffocate and electrocute men and women as a way to get supposed ‘confessions’. (n.d.). Retrieved April 7, 2016, from

Stack, L. (2012, January 26). Organizations Say Torture Is Widespread in Libya Jails. The New York Times. Retrieved April 9, 2016, from

United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Thirty-first session. (2016, February 18). Retrieved April 7, 2016, from

Wang, M. (2015, August 21). China must be pressed to end torture by police. The Washington Post. Retrieved April 7, 2016, from

Werleman, C. (2016, April 5). ‘Americans are pro-torture and proud of it.’ Middle East Eye. Retrieved April 9, 2016, from

Case Study: Police/ Military Torture in Nigeria

A cartoon depicting police torture by Nigerian activist and artist Chijioke Ugwu Clement.
A cartoon depicting police torture by Nigerian activist and artist Chijioke Ugwu Clement.

History: Torture’s Colonial Roots

Prior to the British colonization of Nigeria in 1861, the country enforced laws through traditional African methods and largely without violence (“Rest in Pieces,” 2005, p. 9). Community policing was closely tied with social and religious structures, therefore placing law enforcement in the hands of age grades (“formal organizations whose membership is based on pre-determined age range”), secret societies, and/or vocational guilds (hunters, farmers, or fishermen) (“Rest in Pieces,” 2005, p. 9). The purpose of this societal organization was to maintain order within communities through the responsibility of community members themselves.

With the colonization of the country, however, the role of law enforcement switched gears. Local law enforcement was no longer intended to serve the best interests of Nigerian communities, but rather for the economic and political gains of British colonizers (ex: suppressing resistance to British rule) (“Rest in Pieces,” 2005, p. 9).

As colonizers expanded their rule, they began establishing “local, decentralized police forces” (“Rest in Pieces,” 2005, p. 9). The demographics of these police forces were chosen strategically, comprising of officers who were linguistically and culturally distinct from the communities they were presiding over (“Rest in Pieces,” 2005, p. 9 & Asuzu). Naturally, this created a separation between locals and police forces, and violence became a necessary tool.

Today, the history of colonial policing remains strong, as torture and violence continues to be used by Nigerian law enforcement. As explained by the Human Rights Watch, “The use of violence and repression from the beginning of the colonial era, marked a dislocation in the relationship between the police and local communities, which has characterized law enforcement practices in Nigeria ever since” (“Rest in Pieces,” 2005, p. 10). The destructive and oppressive actions of the British colonizers created a long-lasting division between police and community members. Chinua Asuzu, a Nigerian scholar, describes this division, saying, “although the colonial power has left, the police remains a colonial police” (Asuzu, p. 1).


Nigeria Under International Radar

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture describes torture in Nigeria as an “intrinsic part of how the police operate within the country” (United Nations, 2014, p. 2). Unlike in Guantanamo, where torture is committed behind closed doors and by the country’s highest officials, torture in Nigeria is commonly implemented by local law enforcement. Torture tactics are used to gain intelligence, close cases, and sometimes even conducted arbitrarily (“Rest in Pieces,” 2005). From petty thefts to simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Nigerian citizens are susceptible to torture by police, military, and other law enforcement agencies (“Rest in Pieces,” 2005). Though Nigeria has signed (but not ratified) the UN Convention Against Torture, there is no formal law that criminalizes the use of torture (United Nations, 2014 & “Nigeria’s torture,” 2014).

Amnesty International has conducted several years of research and produced numerous reports on Nigeria’s use of torture (Smith, 2015). Their findings detail unimaginable, widespread acts that have brought Nigeria under the radar of the international community.

Though Nigerian police claim to have a zero-tolerance torture policy, citizens show a clear, constant fear that says otherwise (“Nigeria,” 2014). Amnesty’s 2015 report titled, Stars on their Shoulders. Blood on their Hands: War Crimes Committed by the Nigerian Military, is based on 412 interviews and over 90 photographs and videos (Stars on, 2015). The report reveals, “that since March 2011, more than 7,000 young men and boys died in military detention and more than 1,200 people were unlawfully killed since February 2012” (Stars on, 2015). Research conducted by the Center for Law Enforcement and Education found that “14.8 percent of Nigerians said they had been beaten by the police, 22.5 percent said police had threatened to shoot them in the past, and 73.2 percent said they had witnessed the police beating another person” (“Rest in Pieces,” 2005, p. 10). Police and military officers commonly perform severe beatings, tooth extractions, rape, and the shooting of extremities (United Nations, 2014). Torture is not limited to physical abuse, however, as detainees are often also subject to mock executions and forced to witness executions or torture against others (United Nations, 2014).

One torture victim, only 15 years old, described being detained along with 50 others in a military sweep (Lizard, 2014). In his three week detention he was burned with molten plastic, beaten, forced to walk over broken glass, and forced to watch the execution of other prisoners (Lizard, 2014 & “Nigeria’s torture,” 2014).


Boko Haram Fuels Torture Use

In 2002, the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram was founded in Nigeria. Since then, much of Nigeria’s police and military torture has been in the name of national security (Smith, 2015). Boko Haram regularly carries out bombings, kidnappings, and attacks on civilians (Lizard, 2014). Amnesty International reported that during operations against Boko Haram, law enforcement has “committed countless acts of torture; hundreds, if not thousands, of Nigerians have become victims of enforced disappearance; and at least 7,000 people have died in military detention as a result of starvation, extreme overcrowding and denial of medical assistance” (Smith, 2015). In trying to keep their citizens safe, Nigerian law enforcement is committing atrocities.

Acknowledging the human rights violations committed by Nigerian officers, Executive Secretary of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission, Prof. Bem Angwe, stated, “We will have about 300 soldiers for training on human rights; we are sure that after the training the misconception on the issue of human rights, violations will be brought to an end” (Adekunle, 2015).


Development and Torture

Nigerian torture certainly varies from the Guantanamo Bay example of my previous post. Perpetrators of torture in Nigeria are local law enforcement while in the U.S. the highest officials of the federal government are the predominant perpetrators. Nigerian torture also is not hidden behind closed doors, as torture is by the U.S. government. The most significant difference, however, is the discourse surrounding Nigerian torture.

Not once, in the dozens of articles I read in preparation for this post, did I read the phrase “enhanced interrogation.” The word “torture” was used to describe all of the human rights violations committed by Nigerian law enforcement. The United States claims “enhanced interrogation” as a means of national security intelligence and too often this description is accepted; in Nigeria, though, isn’t the defense against Boko Haram considered national security? Why then, is only the word “torture” used to describe the actions of Nigeria’s officers?

Amnesty International is calling on Nigeria to “put an immediate end to the use of torture and all other forms of ill-treatment of suspects and detainees in military and police custody in Nigeria” (United Nations, 2014). Amnesty, along with countless other groups, has spent over a decade on the grounds in Nigeria researching the use of torture and ultimately demanding its extermination. Why hasn’t Guantanamo Bay received this level of scrutiny?

Nigeria and the United States, two countries with differing levels of development, both perpetrate torture. Yes, there are clear differences between Nigerian and U.S. torture, but why is there a heavier focus on one over the other? Who determines which torture is more severe, important, or requiring of attention? Does the role of the U.S. as a dominant, developed international force exempt it from the type of scrutiny that Nigeria receives? I also question, should the British be held responsible for their role in the introduction of violence and torture? Though they would never realistically be held accountable, it is nonetheless interesting to consider. Nigeria’s use of torture is undoubtedly a severe violation of human rights; the question remains, though, is Nigeria criticized more harshly than other countries that also use torture?

Check out this short news clip reporting on some of Amnesty’s findings and a bit of info on Boko Haram. Pay attention to the framing of the story and the rhetoric of the reporter.

Next Week: A look into the media portrayal of torture worldwide. Does the media portray first world torture differently than third world torture? I hope to gain a better understanding of the global perception of torture, and the influence that media plays in what actions are officially classified as torture.



Adekunle. (2015, August 20). Army identifies soldiers who tortured civilian in Nasarawa. Vanguard. Retrieved April 1, 2016, from

Asuzu, C. (n.d.). Police and Torture in Nigeria [Scholarly project]. Retrieved April 1, 2016, from

Lizard, W. (2014, September 18). Rights group accuses Nigeria of rampant torture. Al Jazeera. Retrieved April 1, 2016, from

Nigeria ‘uses torture officers to extract confessions’ (2014, September 18). BBC. Retrieved April 1, 2016, from

Nigeria’s torture chambers exposed in new report. (2014, September 18). Retrieved April 1, 2016, from

“Rest in Pieces” Police Torture and Deaths in Custody in Nigeria. (2005). Human Rights Watch, 17(11), a. Retrieved April 1, 2016, from

Smith, D. (2015, June 3). Nigeria’s army behind countless acts of torture and 8,000 deaths, Amnesty says. The Guardian. Retrieved April 1, 2016, from

Stars on their shoulders. Blood on their hands. War crimes committed by the Nigerian military (Rep.). (2015, June). Retrieved April 1, 2016, from Amnesty International website:

United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council. (2014). Nigeria: Torture, cruel inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees by Nigerian security forces (pp. 1-4). Retrieved April 1, 2016.

Case Study: Guantanamo Bay

Amnesty International protesters gather in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., calling on Obama to close Guantanamo Bay once and for all.
Amnesty International protesters gather in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., calling on Obama to close Guantanamo Bay once and for all.

History: America’s “Legal Limbo”

Since January 11, 2002, The Department of Defense has held a total of 779 men at Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba (ACLU). The camp’s history dates back much farther, though, to 1903, when the U.S. and Cuba signed an agreement that gave the U.S. access to Guantanamo Bay as a naval station (“Why is Guantanamo”). Included in this agreement was a clause that gave the U.S. government the right to “exercise complete jurisdiction and control” over the area (Rothman, 2015). Out of Cuba’s control and not located on U.S. soil, Guantanamo Bay is not subject to the U.S. court system, but rather the jurisdiction of those in charge of it.

The legal grey area of Guantanamo was quickly taken advantage of. After the 9/11 attacks, President George Bush declared a state of emergency and began using Guantanamo as a detention camp for suspected al-Qaeda affiliates (Rothman, 2015 & Steyn, 2004). Congress quickly gave Bush the authorization to use “all necessary force” against those responsible for the attacks and the use of torture shortly followed (Rothman, 2015 & Steyn, 2004). The actions of the Bush Administration set the dangerous precedent of an “anything goes” Guantanamo Bay.


What happens at Guantanamo stays at Guantanamo…or does it?

English Law Lord Johan Steyn describes Guantanamo as a “legal black hole” (Steyn, 2004). He writes, “The most powerful democracy is detaining hundreds of suspected foot soldiers of the Taliban in the legal black hole at the United States naval base at Guantanamo Bay…” (Steyn, 2004). As Steyn explains, many of those held at Guantanamo are low-level threats, often just foot soldiers (Steyn, 2004). In fact, 92% of the men imprisoned at Guantanamo are not categorized as al-Qaeda fighters by the U.S. government (ACLU). As of January 2016, the U.S was detaining 28 men who they claimed were “too dangerous to release,” though they had insufficient evidence for prosecution (ACLU). Additionally, 34 men have been cleared for release by the U.S government, but continue to be held in Guantanamo (ACLU).

In 2014 the United States Senate released what is most commonly known as the “torture report” (Blake, 2015). This report provided incredible insight into knowledge that had previously been top-secret: the CIA’s interrogation and detention program for Guantanamo detainees (Goldman, 2015). The 525-page report reveals, in detail, just some of the horrific abuses that Guantanamo prisoners are subject to. The foreword of the report reads:

Existing U.S. law and treaty obligations should have prevented many of the abuses and mistakes made during this program… I also believe that the conditions of confinement and the use of authorized and unauthorized interrogation and conditioning techniques were cruel, inhuman, and degrading. I believe the evidence of this is overwhelming and incontrovertible (Feinstein, 2014).

The report continues to describe numerous instances of torture, including “wallings” (slamming detainees against a wall), sleep deprivation, waterboarding, rectal rehydration, stress positions, and the threating of detainee’s families (Feinstein, 2014). President Barack Obama described the CIA actions as a “stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law” (“Why is Guantanamo”). The details of these acts are truly sickening, heinous, and contradictive to all values advocated by the United States. As described in the Iran Daily, the reports show “an apparent paradox in U.S. foreign policy” (Majlesi, 2014).

Following the release of the CIA reports, a Pakistani man came forward describing sexual abuse that he endured as a Guantanamo prisoner, abuse that was not included in the public report (Blake, 2015). Additionally, photographs from CIA “black sites” (undisclosed locations at which highly classified military projects occur) have been discovered, further incriminating the U.S. (Goldman, 2015).


Development and Torture

Over 200 FBI agents have reported abusive treatment of Guantanamo prisoners (ACLU). The reports clearly show that the actions taken at Guantanamo Bay are undoubtedly acts of torture (Feinstein, 2014). This torture breaks both U.S. and international law, as the UN Convention Against Torture clearly 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” (“Torture”). While President Bush and some of his conservative counterparts would argue that extreme measures were/are needed to stop terrorism, international law explicitly forbids such justification. As new information continues to surface, it is clear that the torture of Guantanamo is not an isolated occurrence.

Following his election victory, President Obama stated, “I have said repeatedly, that I intend to close down Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that. I have said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture and I’m going to make sure we don’t torture” (“Why is Guantanamo”). Eight years later and Guantanamo holds strong. Contrary to Obama’s statement, the U.S. indeed uses and continues to use torture, the extents to which are unknown.

The use of torture by a highly developed nation such as the U.S. suggests that the level of development of a country may not necessarily influence its use of torture. The government of a first world nation that claims “liberty and justice for all” is committing severe human rights violations. Citizens of Western nations frequently hold the perception of torture as a distant issue, something that happens in less developed countries where human rights violations are the norm. Guantanamo shows, however, that torture is a tactic used in even the most developed of countries. Why then, is there a separation between American’s perceptions and the truth?

Through my research on Guantanamo I found disconnect between the realities of U.S. torture and the way in which it is portrayed, particularly by politicians and government officials. Reading through the CIA torture report, for example, torture tactics are continually referred to as “enhanced interrogation” (Feinstein, 2014). Number 16 of the report findings reads, “The CIA failed to adequately evaluate the effectiveness of its enhanced interrogation techniques” (Feinstein, 2014). The fact of the matter is that the techniques used by the CIA at Guantanamo were not simply “enhanced interrogation,” they were torture. The phrase “enhanced interrogation” holds a different connotation than “torture” and the two should not be used interchangeably. Though their denotations are essentially the same, the public’s vision of enhanced interrogation differs from its vision of torture. The idea of the U.S. government using “enhanced interrogation” for the protection of its citizens feels better than the government abusing its power to torture. Additionally, if you listen to many of the political arguments in favor of closing Guantanamo, cost is often a driving factor. The political discourse around Guantanamo focuses on the draining of U.S. resources and negative impacts on global relations, rather than the human rights violation it truly is. Rhetoric is powerful and the lack of accountability for the U.S. government has roots in the fabrication of its actions.

The U.S. is quick to disapprove of torture in other nations, while refusing to take responsibility for its own actions. America has a certain reputation, at least in its own mind, of a committed defender of human rights. Unfortunately, this reputation is overshadowing the truth of the government’s actions. Amnesty International “is calling on the United States to adhere to its own professed values and help strengthen, instead of weaken, international compliance with universal standards of human rights” (“Torture”). Unfortunately, besides activists groups such as Amnesty, there is insufficient demand for the U.S. to adhere to human rights law. The story of a United States built on freedom, liberty, and justice does not have room for the reality of its abhorrent and illegal torture.

Here is a quick clip from President Obama’s announcement of his most recent (February, 2016) congressional proposal to close Guantanamo Bay (a proposal that will face much opposition by the Republican controlled Congress). Pay attention to the arguments he makes for the case to close Guantanamo; there is no mention of torture or human rights violations.


Next Week: A case study on torture in the Global South. Does torture in the U.S. look similar to torture in a developing nation? What are the differences in the portrayal and categorization of torture in different countries? Stay tuned as I continue to explore the relationship between development and torture!



ACLU. (n.d.). Guantanamo by the Numbers. Retrieved March 19, 2016, from

Blake, E. (2015, June 2). Guantanamo Bay Torture: Sexual Abuse Worse Than 2014 Senate Report Indicated, Detainee Claims. International Business Times. Retrieved March 19, 2016, from

Feinstein, D. (2014, April 3). (United States of America, Senate, Select Committee on Intelligence). Retrieved March 19, 2016, from

Goldman, A. (2015, June 27). CIA photos of ‘black sites’ could complicate Guantanamo trials. The Washington Post. Retrieved March 19, 2016, from

Majlesi, F. (2014, December 14). US torture and democracy. Iran Daily. Retrieved March 19, 2016, from

Rothman, L. (2015, January 22). Why the United States Controls Guantanamo Bay. Time. Retrieved March 19, 2016, from

Steyn, J. (2004). Guantanamo Bay: The Legal Black Hole. International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 53(1), 1-15. Retrieved March 19, 2019.

Torture and Other Ill Treatment. (n.d.). Retrieved March 19, 2016, from

Welna, D. (2015, February 25). ‘Torture Report’ Reshapes Conversation In Guantanamo Courtroom. NPR. Retrieved March 18, 2015, from

Why is Guantanamo Bay so hard to shut down? (2016, February 24). ABC. Retrieved March 18, 2016, from

Development & Torture: Searching for the Truth


Imagine you’re in a cold, dark cell, standing shackled with your hands in front of you. The only thing you’re able to hear is the loud music that has been on repeat for the past 48 hours (though you aren’t exactly sure how long it has been). You’re sleep-deprived, disoriented, and hungry. You know you have wounds from the beatings, but aren’t aware of how bad they may be. The guards periodically take you out of your cell to continue interrogation, though you do not have the information they are looking for, only making them angrier (Laughland, 2015). This horrific, imagined scene is the reality for victims of torture.

Claimed by the Romans to be the “highest form of truth,” torture can be found as far back as 540AD (Green). Though a clear human rights violation, governments across the world today continue to use torture as a means of information extraction and national security.

In order to fully understand and explore the implications of torture, it is important to establish a definition of torture. According to The United Nations Convention Against Torture, torture is defined as:

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining…information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity (United Nations).

Now even with this UN definition, there is grey area as to what methods constitute torture. To work around the UN’s definition, for example, the United States government will often refer to their techniques as “enhanced interrogation” (Laughland, 2015). In a study done by Amnesty International, a global human rights organization, over one-third of people around the world see justification for the use of torture, which Amnesty attributes to a “Western glorification of torture” (“Western Glorification”). Even though 155 countries have ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, recently “Amnesty International has reported on torture and other forms of ill-treatment in at least 141 countries from every region of the world” (“Global Crisis”).

When torture or “enhanced interrogation” methods are used in developing nations, however, it is common to hear incredibly negative commentary that depicts barbaric nature. As Mutua explains, this “savage, victim, savior complex” is a metaphor for human rights, frequently painting a picture of developing nations as savage and in need of Western assistance (Mutua, 2001).

Because of the prevalence of torture across both developed and developing countries, it raises a few questions; is there a correlation between the development of a nation and the occurrence of torture within that nation? Does torture occur more frequently in first world or   third world countries? Or, does it occur at similar rates but is portrayed differently? Does the portrayal of torture tactics impact when torture is officially considered torture? Through my subsequent blog posts I am going to explore the relationship between a country’s level of development and its government’s use of torture. I will investigate case studies throughout both developed and developing nations, and through comparison aim to understand how levels of development relate to the use of torture.

Check out this short video that is part of Amnesty’s “Stop Torture” Campaign


Global crisis on torture exposed by new worldwide campaign. (2014, May 13).    Amnesty International. Retrieved March 3, 2016, from

Green, C. (n.d.). History of Torture. The Justice Campaign. Retrieved March 3, 2016, from

Laughland, O. (2015, May 20). How the CIA tortured its detainees. The Guardian. Retrieved March 3, 2016, from

Mutua, M. (2001). Savage, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights. Harvard International Law Journal, 42(1), 201-209. Retrieved March 3, 2015.

United Nations, Convention Against Torture. (1994, July 16). Hrweb. Retrieved March 3, 2016, from

Western glorification of torture making it ‘acceptable’ – Amnesty. (2014, May 13). RT. Retrieved March 3, 2016, from