Torture should be as unthinkable as slavery. In principle it is: since World War II, governments the world over have agreed to ban torture without exception, even when at war or facing acts of terrorism. International treaties banning torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading practices are among the most widely ratified treaties in existence.
The reality is different. While the ban on torture has reduced the incidence of torture and related abuse, it is still practiced in many places. Torture is hard to root out in part because governments typically carry it out in secret, behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny.
The scandal over U.S. treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib has rightly focused global attention on the practices of U.S. authorities in the global "war on terror." But the problem exists in dozens of countries, as recent Human Rights Watch findings indicate.
Common targets include not only terror suspects, armed insurgents, suspected rebels, and their presumed supporters, but also demonized political opponents or government critics, members of religious minorities, gays, and ordinary criminal suspects, including suspected juvenile offenders. Members of unpopular or politically weak groups are particularly likely to be subjected to torture.
As United Nations expert on torture Theo van Boven has phrased it, the global significance of Abu Ghraib is not so much that no one else engages in such practices; they do. The signficance of Abu Ghraib is that governments with questionable records now feel they have a "green light" to torture because the photos show that the U.S. engages in forbidden practices too.
This is a critical time to insist on revelation of the full extent of torture and related abuses by U.S. authorities and to press for prosecution of those responsible. It is also a critical time to press other governments, many of which have been quick to condemn the U.S. for its actions at Abu Ghraib, to investigate and prosecute torture and mistreatment in their own holding cells, detention facilities, and prisons.
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HRW Reports on Torture