Reports reveal truly corrosive nature of torture

US grotesquely compromised its stated values

It was April 2004 when the first photographs from Abu Ghraib prison emerged, images that first revealed the grotesque US abuse of detainees. The abiding image of that first torture scandal was the haunting image of a hooded detainee, Ali Shallal al-Qaisi, standing on a box, arms outstretched, draped in a black cloak and hood, an instantly iconic and nightmarish encapsulation of cruel and dehumanising treatment.

This week, that shame was revisited, and compounded, as the US Senate intelligence committee released its long-awaited report into the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme, publishing a 500-page summary of the full 6,700-page report.

It made for grisly reading, and confirmed what most people already knew – the United States grotesquely compromised its stated values by engaging in torture of detainees after 9/11. Reading about the “enhanced interrogation techniques”, to use the anodyne euphemism preferred by the CIA, it is impossible not to be struck by the similarities to the treatment of detainees in another shameful episode – the Hooded Men case.

Five techniques

In that case, 14 men were detained by British forces in Northern Ireland in 1971 and subjected to harsh interrogation methods, with the men subjected to five techniques in particular – the use of hooding, stress positions, white noise, sleep deprivation and deprivation of food and water.


Those techniques and variations of them echo in the US torture report. They also recur in this week’s report into the systematic murder, torture and other abuses carried out by Brazil’s military dictatorship, which obtained British training.

The Irish government at the time sued the British state on the men's behalf, leading to the protracted Ireland vs United Kingdom case at the European Court of Human Rights, which ultimately led to a controversial ruling in 1978 that the techniques constituted inhuman and degrading treatment but fell short of torture as "they did not occasion suffering of the particular intensity and cruelty implied by the word torture as so understood".

Earlier this month, the Government confirmed it will appeal the “hooded men” case to the European Court of Human Rights in the wake of new information that British authorities withheld in the original case.

That appeal will be critical, because since 1978, the ruling has become a sort of cornerstone for tendentious legalistic justifications for torture, used by Israel in the 1980s and, most notably, in the notorious Torture Memos, written in the wake of 9/11 by the likes of John Yoo and Jay Bybee, legal counsel in the Bush administration's justice department.

Bybee singled out Ireland vs United Kingdom as being particularly useful for the Bush administration's purposes.

“Careful attention to this case is worthwhile,” he wrote, “… because the Reagan administration relied on this case in reaching the conclusion that the term torture is reserved in international usage for ‘extreme, deliberate, and unusually cruel practices’.”

Alas, neither Bybee nor Yoo saw fit to point out that the “five techniques” and the larger use of internment only exacerbated the sense of injustice that helped fuel the Troubles.

Somewhere in the space between these legalistic memos and the Senate report they eventually led to, we can see the truly corrosive nature of torture. The abuse of the hooded men of Northern Ireland ultimately led to the abuse of the hooded man of Abu Ghraib. It is time to break that chain.