Print Friendly, PDF & Email

   This is the face of war, unrestrained by the Geneva Conventions:

One-year old Azizullah, injured, lies in his uncle’s arms at Jalalabad Public Hospital. Both were wounded in the U.S. bombing of Karam, Afghanistan, on October 11, 2001, that killed 160 civilians. The Geneva Conventions forbid the targeting of civilians, but as weapons become more and more powerful, civilians become a larger and larger percentage of the casualties of modern war. [AP photo by Enrico Marti]

A Layperson’s One-page Overview of the Geneva Conventions Treaties
By Dennis Rivers, MA

Texts of the Geneva Conventions from the International Committee of the Red Cross

Seven-page summary of Geneva Conventions prepared by the American Red Cross (PDF file).

Reference guide to the Geneva Conventions prepared by the Society of Professional Journalists. Texts of treaties included. (web site)

The Crimes of War Project is a collaboration of journalists, lawyers and scholars dedicated to raising public awareness of the laws of war and their application to situations of conflict. Their goal is to promote understanding of international humanitarian law among journalists, policymakers, and the general public, in the belief that a wider knowledge of the legal framework governing armed conflict will lead to greater pressure to prevent breaches of the law, and to punish those who commit them.

Unitarian Universalist Service Committee invites you to join them in protesting the the passage of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and act that attempts to legalize torture and imprisonment without trial or judicial review.

The United States and the Geneva Conventions by Lionel Beehner A background summary on the web site of the Council on Foreign Relations

Dr. Marc Herold’s web site on the civilian victims of the war in Afghanistan.

Leadership Failure: Firsthand Accounts of Torture of Iraqi Detainees by the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division

U.S. Torture and Abuse of Detainees — Index of resources from Human Rights Watch

What is the legal definition of torture?

According to David Cole, Professor of Law, Georgetown University, writing in the New York Review of Books December, 2007:

“Torture is defined in the [United Nations] Convention Against Torture, which the United States has signed and ratified, and in US law implementing the Torture Convention. The Torture Convention definition is: “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person 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.” It is not “relative to the circumstances” in the sense that if something constitutes torture, it may not be done, regardless of the exigency. And there is not a different torture standard for people we think are guilty and people we think are innocent. The definition is not self-explanatory, however, and as with all legal definitions, leaves questions open at the margins. I have no doubt, however, that waterboarding is torture.”


How serious is the torture issue in and for the USA?

The Trouble With Torture…

An article that explores the dangers of torture for the people who inflict it and the countries that allow it. (By Dennis Rivers. July 2009)

SUMMARY:  In recent years, approximately half of American adults have consistently indicated support for the torture of “terror suspects.” Thus, torture and the militarization of everyday life have become pressing and ongoing issues in discussions about the future of life in America. “The Trouble With Torture…” argues that there are at least four serious problems associated with the acceptance of torture as part of national defense.

First of all, the practice of torture represents a huge increase in the power of the government to hurt individuals, a clear move away from the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and the Constitution’s insistence that a person cannot be punished without first being convicted of a crime by a jury of their peers.

Second, it is not clear that the practice of torture, once begun, can be contained. There is recent evidence that torture and complicity in torture spread quickly across institutions and professions.

Third, there is a mountain of testimony from military officers that torture produces bad information, and there are good reasons to believe that the practice of torture will create more enemies than it thwarts.

Finally, both torture and indefinite preventive detention are psychologically toxic in a variety of ways to the people who inflict them and allow them. What we physically inflict on others, we psychologically inflict upon ourselves.

Torturing Democracy:  A two hour video documentary on the US abandonment of the Geneva Conventions, and practice of torture, in the 2001-2008 time period — from the National Security Archive & shown on PBS. (May 2009)

New York Times editorial on the “Torture Report” from the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. (December 17, 2008)

Video interview with Sen. Carl Levin on accountability of US officials for practice of torture

Broken Laws, Broken Lives: Medical Evidence of Torture by the US. Physicians For Human Rights report. [June, 2008]

Torture and the Betrayal of Medicine by Larry Dossey, MD — An extensive review of the problems and issues surrounding the torture of prisoners by US forces and the collaboration of medical personnel in that process. [June 2007]

An Iraq Interrogator’s Nightmare by Eric Fair (explores the inner consequences of torture on those who inflict it)

U.S. Has a History of Using Torture by Alfred McCoy

We Had to Destroy America In Order to Save It (???) by Dick Strong

Torture, Impeachment and a Vietnam Veteran’s Tears by Dave Lindorff

Sins of Commission: For Bush, being tough on terror requires torture, secret prisons, and no accountability. by James Bovard in The American Conservative

Is Waterboarding Torture? by Joseph L. Galloway

Waterboarding — A Tortured History An NPR issue background story

The Babushka Brigade: What old believers say about torture of human beings By Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés in the National Catholic Reporter 3/3/08 An exploration of what torture does to the souls of both those who torture and those who are tortured.

Unforgiveable Behavior, Inadmissible Evidence A US Air Force military prosecutor speaks out against torture and evidence obtained by torture — New York Times, February 17, 2008

AUDIO RESOURCES ON THIS TOPIC (from The Watson Institute at Brown Univ.):
A conversation with Errol Morris about his “feel-bad” film masterpiece on the torture issue: Standard Operating Procedure (May 9, 2008)

A conversation with Philippe Sands about his book, Torture Team (September 17, 2008)

A conversation with Philip Gourevitch about his book, Standard Operating Procedure (September 17, 2008)

The Cluster Munitions Problem:

What are cluster munitions?

Why are cluster munitions a problem?

What is The Convention on Cluster Munitions?

Mennonite Central Committee extensive information about cluster bombs

Video explaining cluster munitions issue

Video about civilian victims of cluster munitions

Depleted Uranium Weapons — Low Intensity Nuclear War on Civilians — Right Now

Wikipedia Overview

International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons

The Radioactive Wounds of War — an article by Dave Lindorff that explores , in layperson’s terms, some of the medical and ethical problems involved in the use of Depleted Uranium (DU) munitions.

Forget North Korea, America is the Nuclear Menace — The case against the depleted uranium munitions the United States is using today, by Don Monkerud.

  Religious Communities/Individuals Speak Out:

National Religious Campaign Against Torture invites people of all faiths to address torture as a moral issue.

Rabbis for Human Rights — North America Campaign Against Torture

U.S. Catholic Bishops release study guide on torture as a moral issue: view web page view PDF file

Resolution Against Torture from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) / (Sept. 2006) This 10MB PDF file may take a few minutes to download.

Pastoral Letter Against Torture from ministers of the United Church of Christ (May 2008)

QUIT (Quaker Initiative to End Torture):

ACAT (Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture):

Evangelicals for Human Rights:

Torture in the Light of Jewish Values — by Rabbi Maurice Harris

Working Papers on Quaker Opposition to Torture — by John Calvi

A Faith Perspective on the Geneva Conventions — by Dennis Rivers, explores the torture and cluster bomb issues from the point of view of one struggling to follow the teachings of Jesus in a world seduced by the temptations of violence.

11/2/2007 Protest against torture earns priests jail time. Judge refuses to allow Franciscan Fr. Louis Vitale and Jesuit Fr. Stephen Kelly to present supporting evidence from Abu Ghraib.

More items touching on the issue of how individuals become accomplices, or refuse to become accomplices, in the torture activities of their governments:

10/28/2007 Doctors, Torture and the War by Dr. J. Wesley Boyd in the Boston Globe

Various reports have alleged physicians’ complicity in the mistreatment of prisoners being held by the United States at Abu Ghraib and at Guantanamo. Physicians are reported to have advised interrogators as to whether particular prisoners were fit enough to survive physical maltreatment, informed interrogators about prisoners’ phobias and other psychological vulnerabilities that could be exploited during questioning, failed to report incidents of alleged torture, force-fed prisoners who were on hunger strikes, and altered the death certificates of prisoners who died.

Any or all of these actions by physicians violate the standards of the Geneva Conventions. But do most physicians even know those standards? Do they know that doctors could be drafted into military service? Some of my colleagues at Cambridge Health Alliance and I surveyed medical students on these subjects. The results astounded us.

9/8/2007 Biko to Guantanamo: 30 years of medical involvement in torture by David J. Nicholl, et al., in The Lancet (a leading international medical journal)

2004 Book: Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror by Mark Danner. New York Review of Books.

When the Abu Ghraib torture scandal broke in April 2004, Americans and the rest of the world were stunned. President George W. Bush condemned the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers and blamed it on a few bad apples who, he said, had “dishonored our country and disregarded our values.” Mark Danner, a journalist with The New Yorker, argues that a key fact was lost amid the media coverage: the torture was part of a deliberate policy of “enhanced interrogation” planned at the highest levels of the administration. But no punishment awaits the senior U.S. officials who orchestrated the abuses in Iraq and other U.S. detention facilities around the world, Danner writes. With the help of a Republican-controlled Congress, the White House and Defense Department have so far succeeded in limiting the fallout from the scandal and blaming it on a handful of overzealous, low-ranking soldiers.

2005 Book: Truth, Torture, and the American Way: The History and Consequences of U.S. Involvement in Torture — By Jennifer K. Harbury. Beacon Press.

Jennifer Harbury’s investigation into torture began when her husband disappeared in Guatemala in 1992; she told the story of his torture and murder in Searching for Everardo. For over a decade since, Harbury has used her formidable legal, research, and organizing skills to press for the U.S. government’s disclosure of America’s involvement in harrowing abuses in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. A draft of this book had just been completed when the first photos from Abu Ghraib were published; tragically, many of Harbury’s deepest fears about America’s own abuses were graphically confirmed by those horrific images. This urgently needed book offers both well-documented evidence of the CIA’s continuous involvement in torture tactics since the 1970s and moving personal testimony from many of the victims. Most important, Harbury provides solid, convincing arguments against the use of torture in any circumstances: not only because it is completely inconsistent with all the basic values Americans hold dear, but also because it has repeatedly proved to be ineffective: Again and again, “information” obtained through these gruesome tactics proves unreliable or false. Worse, the use of torture by U.S. client states, allies, and even by our own operatives, endangers our citizens and especially our troops deployed internationally.

How did we get into this mess? Video links…

In a famous interview, the U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney stated that in order to combat the terrorists, Americans would have to go over to the “dark side” of secret intelligence methods. This romantic sounding abstraction becomes brutally concrete in the deaths in 2002 of Dilawar and Hibibullah, two Afghani civilians who were beaten to death over several days by U.S. troops while they were in the process of being questioned. (Human Rights Watch lists about one hundred such “deaths under questionable circumstances.”) So the questions arise in relation to the advice that we have to give up our principles and go over to the “dark side:”

How will we find our way back? and,

What happens if we get lost in there?

One of the important ways we bear witness, and fight back against becoming silent accomplices, is to ask these questions — the question that most people would prefer not to think about.

These questions are explored at length in the 2007 film “Taxi to the Dark Side.” Here is a trailer for the film.

Showing at a theater near you. Happening in a world near you. Here is an interview with Alex Gibney, the filmmaker.

Additional trailer for the film “Taxi to the Dark Side:”

Of special interest…

Torture and the Betrayal of Medicine by Larry Dossey, MD An extensive review of the problems and issues surrounding the torture of prisoners by US forces and the collaboration of medical personnel in that process. [June 2007]

Addressing the Waterboard The Problem of Torture Today (click to listen) Audio interview of Manfred Nowak, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture on the “As It Happens” show, CBC Radio Canada, November 8, 2007

Unforgiveable Behavior, Inadmissible Evidence A US Air Force military prosecutor speaks out against torture and evidence obtained by torture New York Times, February 17, 2008


An Overview of the Geneva Conventions

A summary of the basic rules of international humanitarian law in armed conflicts, as codified by the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols.

1. Persons no longer fighting (hors de combat) and those who do not take a direct part in hostilities are entitled to respect for their lives and their moral and physical integrity. They shall in all circumstances be protected and treated humanely without any adverse distinction.

2. It is forbidden to kill or injure an enemy who surrenders, or who is no longer fighting (hors de combat) due to injury, illness or certain changed circumstances (such as sailors who have abandoned ship).

3. The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for by the party to the conflict which has them in its power. Protection of the wounded and sick shall be extended to cover medical personnel, establishments, transports and equipment. The emblems of the red cross, red crescent and red crystal [2007] are the signs of such protection and must be respected.

4. Captured combatants and civilians under the authority of an adverse party are entitled to respect for their lives, dignity, personal rights and convictions. They shall be protected against all acts of violence and reprisals. They shall have the right to correspond with their families and to receive relief.

5. Everyone shall be entitled to benefit from fundamental judicial guarantees. No one shall be held responsible for an act they have not committed. No one shall be subjected to physical or mental torture, corporal punishment or cruel or degrading treatment.

6. Parties to a conflict and members of their armed forces do not have an unlimited choice of methods and means of warfare. It is prohibited to employ weapons or methods of warfare of a nature to cause unnecessary losses or excessive suffering. (Editor’s note: This issue is seen very clearly in the cases of land mines and cluster munitions, both of which continue to injure and kill civilians for many years, even decades, after the combatants have left the field. There are new international treaties which apply this principle and outlaw both land mines and cluster munitions, but several of the largest countries have not yet joined these treaties. This principle would also prohibit the bombing of entire cities.)

7. Parties to a conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants in order to spare civilian population and property. Neither the civilian population as such nor civilian persons shall be the object of attack. Attacks shall be directed solely against military objectives.

Edited for presentation on this site by Dennis Rivers from material in the publications of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Please note, this is a general summary of very detailed treaty provisions. Please click here for a more extended summary from the ICRC web site. Latest revision: 11/22/07

Something to think about while contemplating the necessity of torture:

“He who fights with monsters should be careful
lest he thereby become himself a monster.
And if thou gaze too long into an abyss,
the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
— Nietzsche