Human rights and coercive interrogation techniques
Human rights is a term that refers to the universally accepted rights that all persons are equally entitled to for the simple fact of being human beings. These rights include but are not limited to the right to life, equality and liberty before the law as well as freedom of thought and expression. Any form of limitation or abject denial of any of these rights is referred to as human rights violation. Coercive interrogation on the other hand can be referred to as the use of torturous methods, either physical or mental in order to persuade a person to give certain information considered very crucial or important in saving others or for security reasons. Torture has been described as the worst form of cruelty that any human being can inflict on another because it portrays the victim as having no rights of their own and also as unfit of receiving the type of equal treatment they should get from fellow human beings (Jensen 2006).
Coercive interrogation can either be mild or very severe depending on the level of force that is used to carry out an interrogation. In any event that techniques applied in coercive interrogation lead to torture, international and domestic laws have normally been very prohibitive. Coercive procedures are normally applied in a situation where the
subject has resisted every other method used to persuade them to give the required information. Principle techniques used in coercive interrogation are such as detention, debility pain, arrest, use of drugs (narcosis) and the use of solitary confinement or other similar methods in depriving the subject of sensory stimuli. Other techniques used are threats and fear, induced regression and heightened hypnosis and suggestibility (McPhee 2006).
There are three major characteristics that have been used to describe the response that results from coercion namely dependency, debility and dread. Debility refers to the feeling of helplessness that the victim experiences as a result of loss of intelligence while dependency refers to the situation whereby prisoners get to helplessly depend upon their captors for the provision of main basic needs. As a result of coercion, the subject or victim will experience emotional and motivational reactions of very intense fear and anxiety, a situation that is referred to as dread. If prolonged, dependency, debility and dread will cause the victim to sink into a defensive apathy mood from which it becomes very difficult to arouse him (Posner and Vermeule 2006).
A few philosophers engrossed in studying the issue of morality in society have argued that coercive interrogative practices deeply violate human dignity and that they should not be permitted. But this view fails to put into consideration situations in which coercive interrogation is almost absolutely necessary in saving a life or lives. Most people who have written on the subject believe that coercion is a technique that is only justifiable in catastrophic or very extreme situations but should otherwise be made illegal. But making coercive interrogation formally illegal does not guarantee that justified use of this form of interrogation will not occur. In any event that coercive interrogation becomes justified and the benefits of it carry more weight than the risks of error and unintentional consequences, then this form of interrogation should be legalized but under very strict regulations. If it was completely prohibited, many other practices such as shooting of armed suspects by the police should not be allowed either (McPhee 2006).
Coercion through detention denies the victim anything that will make his current environment seem familiar. This is because man’s sense of identify is highly dependent upon his immediate surroundings, actions, appearance, habits and relations with others among other things. Putting a subject under confinement and denying them what they are used to results in a state of dullness, apathy and depression. The sleep pattern, diet and other fundamental or basic human needs of the victim are now under the full control of their captor or interrogator. Denying a person what they are rightfully entitled to as human beings is denying them their basic human rights. A human being is a social animal and putting them under solitary confinement denies them a right to interact with others (Levinson 2004).
The results achieved through coercive interrogative techniques are more dependent on the approach and style used by the interrogator than on the type of technique applied. The threat to inflict pain for example could yield better results that inflicting the pain itself. All coercive techniques are designed to exert pressure on the brain in such a way that normal functioning of the same is distorted. A human being loses all sense of civilization and results to talking uncontrollably, often revealing such information as they would otherwise not have revealed. But compliance does not guarantee that the victim will give the right information because intense pain for example is likely to lead to false confessions, twisted in such a way as to give an escape from the current distress. In such way, desired results are not achieved and worse still the situation could lead to unwarranted-for legal proceedings. It is therefore wrong to assume that coercive interrogation will yield positive results in a situation where voluntary evidence had failed by denying the victim their basic rights (McPhee 2006).
In 1978 the European court of Human Rights conducted an investigation into the interrogation practices that the British had used in Northern Ireland in the early years of the 1970s. The conclusion from this investigation was that, a wide range of painful practices which were both very inhuman and degrading had been used but which failed to qualify as torture. When in 1999 the Israel Supreme Court ruled against some interrogative techniques practiced in the country such as the head and shoulder shaking, and the painful hood position, these too were classified as degrading and inhuman but not torturous. This is a proof that a distinction exists between torture and coercive interrogation in terms of concept and practical distinctions. Theoretically, further distinctions exist between lawful methods of coercive interrogation that are deemed permissible and those popularly referred to as degrading and inhuman. Most human rights activists however argue that such distinctions are practically unobservable and can only be said to exist on paper. It therefore becomes very difficult to divorce violation of human rights from coercive techniques used to induce pressure on victims so that they may release the desired and necessary information (Duffy 2005).
Human rights activists do however accept that coercive interrogation is necessary in any strategy towards counter-terrorism because reliable information is essential for combating terrorism. What they advocate is the exclusion of any form of abuse in interrogation, a fact that has proved very difficult in rigorous interrogation. As a way of putting a check on rigorous interrogation so that it does not go overboard, human rights activists want to rule out any distinction between torture and coercive interrogation. According to these activists, some methods of coercive interrogation can have very far-reaching psychological damages to the life of the victim in such a way that even after interrogation, they are unable to lead a normal life. These methods are such as abnormal sleep deprivation, mock executions and chemically induced psychosis. Threatening the victim with torture or death of those that are very dear to them may not lead to any physical damage but the psychological anguish resulting from such a technique could be excruciation (Levinson 2004).
Not all types of physical or mental suffering resulting from coercive interrogation will lead to torture. But various techniques when applied in combination or through long durations may lead to some of form of suffering, both physical and mental that could be classified as torture. It is however very difficult to determine the occurrence of torture by assessing the physical and mental forms of pressure that have been applied. This is because one form of abuse could result in another, for example the situation where mental suffering occurs after interrogation whose negative effects are more far-reaching than those derived from physical suffering. Under the 1949 Geneva conventions however, it does not matter what type of coercive method leads to torture and which does not. The conventions are generally against any treatment to a human being that portrays cruelty, appears to be inhuman and is also degrading regardless of whether it leads to torture or not (Posher and Vermeule 2006).
Coercive methods are aimed at creating internal conflict within the resistant subject and inducing some form of internal wrestling within them mainly through application of a superior force from without that will weigh heavily on their resistance and lead to compliance. Under very extreme pain, the victim will normally end up saying not what the interrogator should have as the right information, but what they wish to hear. Information obtained in such circumstances is therefore questionable in terms of value and reliability and could also lead to worse torture if discovered to be unhelpful (Levinson 2004).
After the September 11 terrorist attack in the U.S. , coercive interrogation as a subject has attracted much international attention. Since coercive techniques and other methods that may be similar have widely been used in the U.S. and many countries in the Western world, the issue of justification has become a very debatable one. In reaction to the September 11 attack, a number of captives were put under interrogation and the U.S. also organized counter-attacks through U.S. military campaigns carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan. This led to conflicting views between the U.S. and the European nations where the latter accused the former of treating terrorism as a war instead of a crime that could possibly be dealt with in a legal set up. The techniques used in trying to get information from the suspects of this attack were also very expensive and undesirable. Over a long time, the U.S has been widely engaged in the noble strategy of trying to ensure that human rights and democracy are values that should be realized in the Middle East. Coercive interrogation is likely affect this noble goal because the countries that are to be liberated are bound to notice that their liberators rely upon the very techniques from which they are discouraging them (Duffy 2005).
Coercive interrogation has been known to lead to false eyewitness information and false or coerced confessions that consequently lead to wrongful conviction. Because of the pressure put on them to give information, the victim may claim to have done something that in reality they did not do as a way of quickening the coercive process and getting rid of otherwise unnecessary suffering. Coercive interrogation does not also address the issue of mental disability or any form of psychological disorder that a victim maybe in at the time of interrogation. Because people under such conditions are least aware of their rights as humans, they become susceptible to coercive interrogation. Such people are very likely to respond to suggestive questions and are also likely to shift their answers with the least indication of disapproval and will therefore give false information through false confessions. During police interrogations, children and the adolescents are more vulnerable to coercive techniques than older and more psychologically stable persons and the information they give could be very distorted (Jensen 2006).
Coercive interrogation is justifiable only after all things have been put into consideration and the benefits which in most cases are tangible, exceed the monetary and other costs attached to the process. But if permitted in certain occurrences, there is a high risk that government agents would use certain instances to argue for the necessity of coercive interrogation in the course of discharging their duties. This is especially in the case where need arises to protect the public from highly likely terrorist attacks (McPhee 2006).
Unlike other practices like killing or execution that completely eliminate a person from existence, coercive interrogation offers the victim a possibility of benefiting from future human dignity. The victim may not have received the fairest of treatment but at least they have another chance to sort out their issues (Levinson 2004)
Jensen Derrick. Endgame: The problem of civilization. Seven Stories Press, 2006.
Duffy Helen. The War on Terror and the Framework of International Law. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Posher, Eric A and Vermeule, Adrian. Michigan Law Review 01-Feb-06 Vol 104:671
Should Coercive Interrogation be legal? 2 June, 2008 http://www.michiganlawreview.org/archive/104/4/polsner-vermeule-pdf
McPhee, Ralph.D. The treatment of prisoners: Legal, moral or criminal? Nova Publishers, 2006.
Levinson Sanford. Torture: A collection. Oxford University Press, 2004.