‘The Guineapigs’ by John McGuffin (1974, 1981)

Chapter 10
Postscript — Torture in the World Today

'Torture is an international menace. Though it
may originate in a distant place, if we shut
our eyes to it, it may spread and affect us. To
know that torture exists somewhere and to
remain silent is to encourage the torturers.
– Dr. Alexander Esenin-Volpin

Today, despite pious resolutions by the member states of the United Nations, torture is endemic. The British tend, however, to suffer from what Edmund Burke described as 'geographical morality' – we are quite prepared to be shocked by and to condemn torture in other countries while condoning its practice by the British authorities. In 1973 Amnesty International produced reports of torture in no fewer than sixty-nine countries. These included not only the most notorious totalitarian states such as Brazil, Greece, South Africa, Russia and Turkey but many smaller countries where hitherto the practice had been almost unknown. Of the South American countries, only one, Costa Rica, is apparently not using torture on its political prisoners, and Argentina, for instance, has no fewer than seventy-three different methods of torture in use, ranging from the quaint-sounding 'parrot perch' to the 'dragon's chair'. Electric-shock treatment is still used in countries as far apart as South Vietnam, Iran, Indonesia and Brazil. The list is almost endless.
     Even many of those countries which do not allow torture within their own territories have become involved in training personnel in the 'arts' of torture and in supplying sophisticated equipment. Thus the United States sends its agents and equipment to service the military dictatorships of South America, from Argentina to Uruguay, and few of them meet the fate of Dan Mitrione.[1] Similarly, American soldiers returning from Vietnam have confessed that they were given courses in torturing Vietcong suspects by their officers.[2] Various British and French firms have admitted manufacturing and selling equipment whose primary function was its use in torturing people. In their defense they claimed that exports were good for trade.

But although torture is widespread there is today no country which is prepared to admit it regularly uses such methods. Whereas before the nineteenth century some countries publicly acknowledged torture as an instrument of judicial inquiry, today the administrations running the vast majority of countries where torture is practised will blankly deny any knowledge of it.[3] Official inquiries are rare, and when they occur are mere whitewashes. And such is the worsening position in Britain. Newspapers like the Guardian will wax indignant about the torture carried out in South Africa and Greece (though at the same time carrying holiday advertising for both places) but will ignore what is happening, an hour's flight away from their offices, in Belfast. In 1971, as mentioned above, after the news had leaked out about the 'guineapigs', Peter Jenkins, one of the Guardian's reporters, wrote an article stating that while possibly ill-treatment might have been used on 'non-Caucasians' in Aden or Cyprus it was 'unthinkable' that it could be used within the boundaries of the UK.[4] The same 'geographical morality' was expressed by Sir Norman Skelhorn, the Director of Public Prosecutions, as recently as October 1973. When questioned at a meeting of the Harvard Law School Forum about torture in Northern Ireland, Sir Norman did not even bother to deny that it had taken place, instead claiming that 'when dealing with "Irish terrorists" any methods were justified'.[5]

As Amnesty has pointed out, political stability and progress are two of the pretexts most often advanced to justify repression and torture, and each puts State planning before the rights of the individual. Moreover, as history has shown, governments do not achieve stability through torture: on the contrary, they provoke counter-violence which can lead to their downfall or at least ensure instability for years to come.
     Regardless of this, torture should be condemned whether or not it leads to stability, for at least two reasons. Firstly, it is immoral. It cannot be morally justified since it is a crime against humanity. Those who would seek to justify it because of the acts of violence of those who oppose the State generally see themselves as strong supporters of 'law and order'. The demand that everyone must respect and obey the law, but they tend to fall into the fatal error of the American general who said of the Vietnamese village of Ben Tre, 'in order to save the village, we had to destroy it'. Similarly the apostles of 'law and order' destroy that very concept when they violate the law by torturing and brutalizing the opponents of the State.

The other chief argument against torture is its illegality. It is prohibited under every relevant international legal document. The Geneva Convention of 12 August 1949 forbids torture of all combatants whether the conflict is international or internal. Thus in a civil war situation no claim of domestic jurisdiction can be invoked by the factions involved to deny the international illegality of torture. Similarly, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26 of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, Article 5 of the Declaration of the Citizen's Rights in the Arab States and Countries, Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and Article 5 of the American Convention on Human Rights all prohibit torture. Moreover, although the last three treaties do allow derogations from some of the rights in times of extreme threats of internal disorder, the right not to be subjected to torture is one from which no derogation is permissible.[6]

Torture is therefore illegal in every country in the world. And yet it exists. The problem is one of enforcement. Worse still, wherever it exists and is not stamped out, it spreads. An example of this is the French in Algeria. In 1955 Mr. Williaume, a French civil servant was sent by the French government to investigate allegations of torture in Algeria by French military and police personnel. His report failed to condemn unequivocally the torture which he discovered did exist.[7] As a result the torturers were granted a new lease of life and the period 1955 to 1962 saw torture spread like wildfire not only through Algeria, but into metropolitan France itself. Similarly in Northern Ireland, the failure of both the Compton and Parker Reports unambiguously to denounce torture and 'ill-treatment' has allowed these crimes to proliferate, though they have not, as yet, reached the levels they reached in France, nor have they yet spread to the English mainland.

As for Northern Ireland, there appear to have been six main reasons why torture was used by the Army and police.

1.  To gain intelligence. Kitson believed that 'a great amount of low-level or background information is preferable in this context to a few high grade sources'. Torture helped to get information quickly.
     2.  To get 'confessions' which would lead to charges in the courts and thus help give the impression that with the numbers being hauled into court the Army and police were 'on top of the situation, Minor annoyances here were the tendencies of a few judges to throw these cases out of court, but in that event the prisoner was then detained as he left the court, and interned.[8]
     3.  To mete out summary punishment – torture was always more frequent after a soldier had been shot in the area.
     4.  To create a climate of fear in the area from which the arrested man came, which would lead to a weakening of local support for the guerrilla forces and an increase in the number of people in the area prepared to inform.
     5.  To create fear in the minds of the younger volunteers of the guerrilla forces so that if captured they would break quicker, believing that they were about to be subjected to the same kind of torture as their comrades had been.

Finally, there is often a sixth reason. The torturer must justify himself. As Sartre has put it, 'the purpose of torture is not only the extortion of confessions, of betrayal; the victim must disgrace himself, by his screams and his submission, like a human animal'. For the torturer's sake the victim must be degraded in order that he can be regarded as 'sub-human'; hence physical degradation, often concentrating on the victim's genitals, and abuse and vituperation. The torturer tries to convince himself that his victim isn't really a fellow human being. Consequently, tortures such as electric-shock treatment are highly regarded by most torturers, for they not only leave few marks but they also reduce the torturer's sense of guilt by allowing him the illusion that he is not responsible for the screams which are the 'fault' of the electrodes.[9]

That Sensory Deprivation is a form of sophisticated torture cannot be denied. And yet one of its most insidious features is that compared with horrific accounts of beatings, electric shocks and weird torture instruments, it sounds comparatively innocuous. Few visible marks are left on the victim. Only his mind is scarred. But as Amnesty has pointed out:

It is because we regard the deliberate destruction of a man's ability to control his own mind with revulsion that we reserve a special place in our catalogue of moral crimes for techniques of thought control and brainwashing. Any interrogation procedure which has the purpose or effect of causing a malfunction or breakdown of a man's mental processes constitutes as grave an assault on the inherent dignity of the human person as more traditional techniques of physical torture.[10]

Whether a man 'goes out of his mind' from the pain of needles under his finger-nails or from an electronically induced delirium, the final effect remains that of an unbearable sense of loss, not only of control but ultimately of identity. He becomes, in Sartre's words, 'detached from his real self'.
     These techniques have been used, in controlled experiments, on members of the civilian population of Northern Ireland. There is no reason to suppose that the interrogation specialists at Maresfield will not, at some time in the future, use them on dissident members of society in England. Hitherto one of their most useful aids has been the apathy of the general public and the subservience of wide sections of the press. It is to be hoped that this situation will change radically in the near future. If it does not, they will clearly be able to escalate further the use of torture in the British Isles.

And the truth cannot be hid,
Somebody chose their pain.
What needn't have happened, did.'

Footnotes Chapter 10:

  1. Mitrione, a torture expert who posed as an AID official. was executed by the Tupamaros on 10 August 1970.
  2. Other examples include the torture 'seminar' held by the Americans in October 1969 in Rio de Janeiro for the benefit of members of the Brazilian army, who provided the political prisoners for the Americans to demonstrate their tortures on. Similar courses have been held in Georgia, USA, for seconded military officers from Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.
  3. The decline in the West of moral standards in the last forty years has been alarming. For example, in the First World War the Russians didn't even try to interrogate captured German POWs. It wasn't the done thing.
  4. Artice entitled 'Aden or Brum', in the Guardian of 24 November 1971. Possibly Mr. Jenkins failed to realize that to most British soldiers the Irish are 'non-Caucasian' – 'white niggers' is how some of them describe the stereotyped 'paddy' that they expect to see.
  5. For a report of the meeting, see People's News Service, 24 November 1973 (PNS's address is: 119 Railton Road, London SE 24).
  6. i.e. according to Article 4 in the Covenant. Article 15 in the European Convention and Article 27 in the American Convention.
  7. The report is available as an appendix to Torture, Cancer of Democracy, by Vidal Nacquet (Penguin, 1963).
  8. For a list of such cases, see Internment, by John McGuffin (Anvil Press, Tralee, 1973), pp.184-5.
  9. For an insight into the mind of the torturer, see for example Licensed Mass Murder: A Socio-psychological Study of Some SS Killers, by Henry Dicks (Sussex University Press, 1972); also the work of Dr. Micheline Guiton on the psychology of SS officers in Nazi concentration camps, and of French paratroopers who engaged in torture in Algeria (to be found in the reports of the Scandinavian Regional Conference on Torture, 6-7 October 1973). In a similar way in Russia today the State 'rationalizes' that anyone who opposes any of its decisions must be suffering from some form of 'schizophrenia' and must therefore be committed to an asylum – and clearly mental patients can't have political status!
10. See the memorandum submitted to the Parker Committee, obtainable from Amnesty at 53 Theobalds Road, London, WC1X 8SP.

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