Background Briefing

Lessons from History

Arguments that torture is sometimes necessary to confront a greater evil are not new. The French jurist Jean Bodin wrote in 1580 of the need to torture suspected witches. Making an argument about the need for extreme measures in extreme circumstances that may in part sound familiar in the 21st century, he wrote, “Proof of such evil is so obscure and difficult that not one out of a million witches would be accused or punished if regular legal procedures were followed.”

But by the mid-20th century, the shamefulness of torture seemed self-evident, a message that was reinforced by the horrors of Nazi practices in the Second World War. The international ban on torture was enshrined in the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”1Britain played a key role in shaping the Universal Declaration, as it also did in shaping the European Convention on Human Rights that followed two years later.

Yet in the second half of the twentieth century, governments—including the UK’s— repeatedly sought once more to justify torture, claiming that the ban was already somehow outmoded.

In the 1950s, France’s war against the rebels in Algeria was distinguished by extraordinary savagery. Torture and disappearances were widespread. Gen. Jacques Massu, a French commander in Algiers, said that torture was a “cruel necessity.” Yet France was subsequently forced out of Algeria, not least because its brutal tactics turned ordinary Algerians against its rule. 

Only much later did Massu change his mind. In 2000, he told Le Monde, “Torture is not indispensable in time of war, we could have got along without it very well.” He said that France should officially admit its policies of torture and condemn them: “I think that would be a good thing. Morally torture is something ugly.”2

(Interestingly, even some in the Pentagon have acknowledged the failure of the torture policy, with reference to abuses by French forces in Algeria. In 2003, shortly after U.S. forces arrived in Baghdad, the Pentagon organized a screening of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, with a flier which put Pontecorvo’s famous movie in perspective. The Defense Department flier summed up the message: “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas.”)3

France’s disastrous experience in Algeria did not end the idea that breaking the rules is necessary to defeat terrorist violence. In the early 1970s, the UK government argued that highly coercive interrogation was necessary to confront the new terror threat in Northern Ireland, after the beginning of violent unrest—commonly known as “the Troubles”—in 1969.

The European Court of Human Rights condemned the so-called “five techniques” used by UK military and security forces during that period.4 It ruled that the techniques—hooding, wall-standing, noise, deprivation of food and drink, and sleep deprivation—were cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, banned under the European Convention on Human Rights. The British government gave “a solemn undertaking” to the court that the techniques would never again be used on British soil.

In the 1970s, military governments in Latin America were eager to argue that the torture ban was outmoded.  In 1976 the Argentinean military proclaimed a guerra sucia, a “dirty war” against subversives. In the new, changed circumstances, they said that an old-style “clean war” was no longer appropriate. The regime found powerful backers for that argument. Argentinean bishops offered God’s dispensation for torture, suggesting that, in a war against subversives, it was “necessary to use such methods.”5 In the name of protecting Argentina from terrorism, thousands were kidnapped and disappeared by security forces, thrown out of helicopters into the ocean, or tortured to death.

Argentina was not alone with its policies. In Chile, too, torture and forced disappearances were common. Manuel Contreras, director of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s National Intelligence Directorate (Dina), later declared, “There are no ‘disappeared detainees’ in a war against subversion

The argument that the anti-torture rules were “out of date,” designed for an era of “gentlemanly behaviour and white gloves,” was specious. In reality, the four core Geneva Conventions—each of which bans “cruel treatment and torture”—were agreed in 1949 with the exceptional brutality of the Second World War, in Eastern Europe and the Far East especially, very much in mind. The Geneva Conventions, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, negotiated and agreed at approximately the same time, were intended to ensure that such nightmares would not be repeated.

The preamble to the Universal Declaration makes this context clear: “…disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which outraged the conscience of mankind… it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights be protected by the rule of law…”7

The 1984 UN Convention against Torture sought to close for all time any loopholes that might imply that extreme times justify extreme measures, and anticipated the danger that governments would be eager to use national security as a “get-out clause” in order to soften the prohibition. Article 2 states,

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.8

Britain supported the convention. By the time of its adoption, torture had become a universal taboo. While the practice had by no means been eradicated, it was so shameful that its perpetrators carried it out in secret, denied its existence, and went to great lengths to conceal its effects. In the wake of September 11, however, governments have begun openly to question that taboo, and have done incalculable damage to the eradication of torture.

1 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted December 10, 1948, G.A. Res. 217A(III), UN Doc. A/810, Article 5.

2 Florence Beauge, “’La torture faisait partie d'une certaine ambiance. On aurait pu faire les choses différemment’" (interview with Jacques Massu), Le Monde, June 22, 2000.

3 David Ignatius, “Think Strategy, Not Numbers,” Washington Post, August 26, 2003, (accessed June 16, 2006).

4 Ireland v. United Kingdom, (Series A, No. 25), Judgment of January 18, 1978, (1979-80) 2 EHRR 25.

5 “Argentine ex-dictator admits to 8,000 disappeared in 'dirty war' – report,” Agence France Presse, September 1, 2003; “Argentina says Church gave green light to torture,”

EFE News Service, September 1, 2003.

7 UDHR, Preamble.

8 United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1465 U.N.T.S. 85, entered into force June 26, 1987, Article 2(2).