Why torture is never justified

World renowned torture experts speak out against the practice.  

Torture has crept its way back into US mainstream political discourse.

Republican nominee Donald Trump has unabashedly called for waterboarding suspects. The technique was scrapped by the Bush administration in 2006 as ineffective and potentially illegal. In 2014, waterboarding was declared torture by the International Red Cross.

Guantánamo Bay also remains open, and Donald Trump has vowed to keep the prison operational, and to “load it up with some bad dudes.” President Obama has assured voters on numerous occasions throughout his presidency that the detention center would be closed. “In the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantánamo, we have compromised our most precious values,” he said.

We asked leading experts if it is ever worth compromising these values. Is torture ever justified? The answer was a resounding “no.” Here’s why:


Eric P. Schwartzeric is dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. He has held senior public service positions in government, at the United Nations, in the philanthropic and non-governmental communities, and in academia. He also serves as Board Liaison to the Center for Victims of Torture’s (CVT) National Advisory Council.

Schwartz: Torture is never justifiable. There are many reasons for this position:  US capacity to lead internationally on issues of national security importance is enhanced when our leaders are seen to be acting with integrity and consistent with international law. Moreover, information obtained by torture is often not reliable and, if we torture, our actions serve as a recruiting tool for extremist groups intent on harming the United States. Finally, torture is immoral and undermines values that define our national identity.


Ulrich Schnyderulrich-2 is head of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University Hospital Zurich. He founded the hospital’s outpatient clinic for victims of war and torture. The clinic accepts and treats 150 new patients every yearRead our interview with him here.

Schnyder: Torture is never justifiable. In real life as well as in experimental situations, people can be confronted with ethical dilemmas in which torture might look as if it were the best solution to prevent even greater damage and human suffering. Nevertheless, torture is not justifiable under any circumstances. Period.


Charles Henrycharles is Professor Emeritus of African American Studies, University of California at Berkeley. In 1994, President Clinton appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities for a six-year term. He is also a member of CVT’s National Advisory Council.

Henry: Torture is never justifiable for several principle reasons.  It is illegal in the United States and the vast majority of countries in the world that have signed the Torture Convention as well as other human rights treaties. It undermines human rights and human dignity. Most world religions would include it in the very definition of immoral or unethical behavior. Torture degrades those who participate in it, even those who are not the monsters commonly associated with it but the students we see in the infamous Stanford prison experiment. Torture inflames hatred of those countries that participate in it and often leads to retribution. Finally, torture just doesn't work. The often used hypothetical case of torturing someone to get information that will save others from immediate harm rarely, if ever, occurs in the real world. There is ample evidence to show that those being tortured will say anything to stop the torture and that other forms of information gathering are more reliable.


David M. Cranedavid – is Professor of Practice at Syracuse University College of Law. From 2002 to 2005, he was the founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, an international war crimes tribunal, appointed to that position by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He is also a member of CVT’s National Advisory Council.

Crane: As a former senior legal advisor to special operations forces in the United States I would advise my client to do “the right thing not the easy thing.” Thomas Jefferson would comment that when one when is mad, one should count to ten; when one is very mad, one should count to one hundred.

In times of strife, when it appears our security is threatened it is easy to get mad and do the easy thing.  I advise my students that when our nation is threatened we should always hold our Constitution close not push it away.

Alas, when the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001 we pushed our Constitution away.  Our leaders declared the “the rules have changed” that the Geneva Conventions were “outdated”.  Coupled with anger and fear, the Bush administration declared war on terror and embarked down a very dark path in retribution.  It did not work and saw the United States slide down a slippery slope with a policy to enhance interrogation techniques of captured persons in Guantanamo and other open and closed sites around the world.

Of course this was a fancy dodge for another word that described what this was—torture. Outlawed in international law and in most domestic legal regimes this inhumane tactic to extract information never, repeat, never works. There is never a time to use torture, never.

Having been in the national security business and in international law for most of my career, I had not seen the use of torture by the United States prior to September 2001. It was considered a violation of international law. It was really not necessary as interrogation techniques used by professionals were humane and effective. The information garnered by these lawful techniques was generally reliable. It worked for decades. Information from torture is unreliable.

Remember, when we step away from the law for national security purposes, to include the use of torture, only anarchy follows. If that is the case perhaps the terrorists could sit back and declare victory.



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Feature image here.