Bulletin News

Links Between Torture, Human Rights Explored


If developed nations believe torture is unethical, why do some, including the United States, continue to strategically abuse people?

Stephanie Decker, assistant professor of sociology/anthropology at SUNY Cortland, will discuss that issue and the connection between torture and human rights on Wednesday, Feb. 21, at the College.

The presentation, “Torture: Strategies, Effects and the Human Toll,” will begin at 4:30 p.m. in Moffett Center, Room 2125. Part of SUNY Cortland’s year-long Brooks Museum Lecture series, “The Culture of Human Rights and Realities,” the talk will be preceded by a reception for the speaker at 4 p.m. in the Rozanne M. Brooks Museum, Moffett Center, Room 2126. Brooks series events are free and open to the public.

Decker will explore the complex human rights implications of torture and why it continues to be practiced by governments in the developed world on an alarming basis.

“We still keep talking about torture because it’s still happening,” Decker said. “Everything people think they know about torture is true, but there’s even more.”

Decker’s field of expertise is forced confessions. She said she began focusing on torture because the two subjects “go together like peanut butter and jelly.” Decker’s study of public confessions and show trials, in which punishment is used not to obtain legitimate information but rather to make an example of the victim, led to examine torture and confession in a sociopolitical context.

Governments have found loopholes in torture laws, shifting from physical to psychological methods so that the use of interrogation could continue. The resulting new forms of torture create a gray area, as many of these techniques do not necessarily seem like torture from an outsider’s perspective.

For example, persons of interest from more conservative cultures or who follow orthodox religions may be forced to listen to suggestive music or view pornography during interrogation. This type of media may be considered a relatively common part of American culture, but are deeply taboo to these subjects. The practice can inflict a devastating emotional toll on someone when these are forced upon them.

“Once you see yourself going about a behavior that you despise it leads to this psychological torture that can haunt you for years,” Decker said.

These enhanced interrogation techniques leave no physical mark on their subjects but can be much more damaging than conventional torture. Such techniques have evaded being legally classified as torture because they are highly contextual.

“Just because something doesn’t look like torture on the outside doesn’t mean it won’t feel like torture for the person going through it,” Decker said. “If you don’t go through something, you will underestimate how painful it is for someone else.”

Not only is torture difficult to define, but its ability to obtain information from enemies is dubious. Many people subjected to physical or psychological trauma will say anything in order to stop the torture, often leading to false confessions and inaccurate intelligence. In fact, the only guaranteed result of torture is fierce retaliation from the party to whom the tortured person belongs, Decker said.

Despite these drawbacks, torture is a common first response, she said. It is seen as justifiable for the greater good during scenarios in which innocent lives may be at stake.

“In the moment, the need to save people, to be heroes, makes torture an easy thing to fall back on,” Decker said. “But there’s a long-term consequence to everything we do.”

Decker urges college students to educate themselves about how torture is being used around the world and how it relates to human rights.

“It’s important for the average person to spend some time and figure out what other people are going through,” Decker said. “You and I get to walk away from it to go watch cat videos and drink mochas. But for people living it, that’s their life.”

“The Culture of Human Rights and Realities” series continues on Wednesday, March 21, with Syracuse University Associate Professor Roy S. Gutterman’s “Freedom in the Balance: Free Speech Rights and the Current Global Context.” It concludes on Wednesday, April 11, with University of Kansas Associate Professor Hannah Britton’s “Moving Upstream: Preventing Human Trafficking and Exploitation.”

The remaining talks also will be held in Moffett Center, Room 2125 at 4:30 p.m. on their respective dates. A reception precedes each event at 4 p.m. in the Rozanne M. Brooks Museum.

Contact Professor of Sociology/Anthropology Sharon Steadman at 607-753-2308 for more information.

Prepared by Communications Office writing intern Ben Mayberry