80% of countries use torture - including New Zealand

Monday 23 September 2013, 6:53AM

When it comes to torture, there’s no shortage of means or methods. Some techniques - like having your toenails pulled out or being forced into unnatural stress positions - induce physical agony. Here’s a list of the ten most frequently used physical torture techniques. Other techniques like sleep deprivation or waterboarding induce intense psychological distress rather than physical suffering. Here’s a list of eleven psychological techniques used on prisoners at Guantanamo which the US government referred to as ‘enhanced interrogation' techniques – as if they were not really torture. 

Torture is torture

To the average coward like myself, having my toenails extracted with a pair of pliers sounds a lot worse than being water boarded.  But a report in the March 2007 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, says psychological techniques – such as exposure to adverse environmental conditions, forced stress positions, hooding, blindfolding, isolation, forced nudity, threats, humiliating and degrading treatment -  cause just as much trauma and distress as physical techniques.

This is because psychological techniques produce physical effects - and vice versa.   For instance, keeping someone awake for days on end causes a whole range of physiological effects including headaches, impaired memory and cognitive functioning, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stress, anxiety, depression, hallucinations and psychosis.  In other words, it can drive you crazy.

These findings do not support the distinction between physical torture and "other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment."   This conclusion is backed up by the  New Scientist which says research in 2009 on 300 torture survivors from the former Yugoslavia shows that prisoners subjected to psychological torture  experienced just as much mental anguish (measured by rates of post-traumatic stress disorder) as those who were physically tortured.  New Scientist quotes US Senator John McCain, who was captured and tortured in Vietnam, who says: “If he were forced to make a decision between enduring psychological or physical torture, he would not hesitate to pick the latter”.

80% of countries use torture

We tend to think that torture is practised mainly in dictatorships, former communist countries, third world countries – and by the United States at Guantanamo.  But according to Christian Davenport, Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, 80% of the countries in the world torture someone in any given year.  Although physical torture is less common in democracies, the 80% figure includes the use of psychological techniques that do not leave permanent marks or other evidence of physical trauma. Davenport says:

“Research shows that torture is depressingly common, and that democracies have led a global shift to ‘clean’ techniques that make torture harder to detect.”

Darius Rejali, professor of political science at Reed College, and an internationally recognized expert on government torture and interrogation, agrees.  In Torture and Democracy, he says that as democracy and human rights spread after World War II, so too did the use of "clean" techniques using electricity, ice, water, noise, drugs, and stress positions.  Led by the US, Britain and France, he argues that democracies not only tortured, but “set the international pace for torture”.  Perhaps it should be no surprise that after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre,  54 different countries  were willing to help the CIA outsource torture through the use of ‘extraordinary rendition’.

Definition of torture

The Human Rights Data Project  says both physical and psychological torture techniques are breaches of human rights and defines torture as:

“The purposeful inflicting of extreme pain, whether mental or physical, by government officials or by private individuals at the instigation of government officials. This includes the use of physical and other force by police and prison guards that is cruel, inhuman, or degrading, and deaths in custody due to tangible negligence by government officials.”

Torture in New Zealand prisons

There have been a number of official investigations into the medical treatment of prisoners in New Zealand. In 2005, the Ombudsman published a report titled Investigation of the Department of Corrections in relation to the Provision, Access and Availability of Prisoner Health Services. Although the Ombudsman stopped short of using the word torture, the report described a litany of inhumane and degrading medical practices masquerading as treatment.

In 2010, the National Health Committee published Health in Justice: Improving the health of prisoners and their families and whānau. It said medical treatment of prisoners was so poor that the Government should "consider the case for transferring responsibility for prisoner primary health care from the Department of Corrections to the health sector."

The Health Committee report was partly based on research by Dr Michael Roguski and Fleur Chauvel who interviewed 63 prisoners chosen at random asking questions about their medical 'treatment' in prison. They also released a report titled: The Effects of Imprisonment on Inmates and their Families Health and Wellbeing. It documents a series of cruel and inhumane practices which are part of daily life in New Zealand prisons. Dr Roguski's report also stops short of using the word torture. However, in a phone conversation, Dr Roguski said that, in his opinion, the use of At Risk cells and other practices documented in his research meets the definition of torture.

Some of the inhumane practices in his report are described the following links:

Torture in New Zealand 1 - the so-called At Risk cells

Torture in New Zealand 2 - forcing prisoners into withdrawal

Torture in New Zealand 3 – prison doctors forced to breach medical ethics