The Cable

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Reminds Certain Rich Countries that Torture Is Wrong and Bad

Whomever could he mean?

zaddy zeid

“Torture is not only deeply wrong, but, from an intelligence gathering standpoint, deeply counterproductive.”

So said Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at a U.N. General Assembly side event straightforwardly named, “Torture during Interrogations — Illegal, Immoral, and Ineffective.”

Accent on the latter. The overarching message of the event was not just that torture is repugnant, but that it does not work — a direct rebuttal to defenders of “enhanced interrogation” who maintain that it can provide intelligence officials with valuable information they’d otherwise never be able to get.

Al-Hussein opened by pointing out that Napoleon knew that torture didn’t work (and ordered his generals not to use it), and noted that some modern states have agencies “using psychologists to design brutal interrogation methods such as waterboarding.” That was a clear reference to techniques employed during the George W. Bush years — and promised a comeback during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Some of Trump’s advisers, led by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, convinced him not to return to questionable interrogation tactics of the past. Other top intelligence officials, such as new CIA chief Mike Pompeo, have also clearly repudiated torture, making it unlikely that the belligerent campaign rhetoric will morph into policy anytime soon.

But few are taking any chances. Mark Fallon, who spent three decades in law enforcement and the U.S. government, recalled how the Bush administration authorized enhanced interrogation less than one week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Those decisions were made out of fear, frankly ignorance, as well as arrogance,” Fallon said.

Fallon said he was unsure if the same decision would have been taken today, given the large body of scientific research that has emerged as a byproduct of the U.S. torture and interrogation program. Beyond the morality, Fallon said that torture can be downright counterproductive.

“If you’re coercive or abusive, you might get information, the information you want, but it might not necessarily be the truth,” Fallon explained.

But the scientific findings about torture’s inefficacy may not have found the widest possible audience yet. Fallon recalled that Trump openly campaigned on bringing torture and interrogation back, and said he feared what would happen “unless the international community continues to stand up for human rights and puts pressure on my country.”

Photo credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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