The science and law of torture


AAAS hosts a public discussion on 28 June

WASHINGTON, DC - Incidents of torture are making headlines around the globe. In the United States, as more is revealed about the Iraq prisoner scandal, public debate has centered on the legal requirements for prisoners of war and the standards to protect them against torture as codified in the international human rights treaties that this country has ratified.

What constitutes an act of torture? Is the use of torture ever justified? What evidence, if any, is there to suggest that the practice of torture is in the best interest of national security and how does the current research in sociology, psychology inform the debate about torture?

"Authorizing, permitting or tolerating torture or acts that are inconsistent with the principles of international law, U.S. law, or our values as a country would have serious implications for our nation and for the international human rights system," says Audrey R. Chapman, director of science and human rights programs at AAAS.

On Monday, 28 June, AAAS, the science society will convene a panel of legal and scientific experts on torture and prisoner treatment for a half-day conference.

On the scientific panel, award-winning Martha Huggins, Ph.D., Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professors of Human Relations, Tulane University, New Orleans, is highly regarded in the field of torture research. She has conducted numerous studies of torture and will talk about some of her research on incidents in Brazil and implications for other contexts. She will identify and elaborate on the sociological and psychological factors that nurture, facilitate, justify and excuse torture. Huggins will also discuss the systematic nature of torture systems and methods to stop them. "A strategy that just focuses on the direct perpetrators will not reduce or eliminate torture," she says.

Another researcher, Allen S. Keller, M.D., program director, Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, has evaluated torture survivors since 1990 and has written extensively on health and human rights issues, including health care for prisoners, the medical and social consequences of using land mines, and human rights education for health professionals. He will address the definition of torture today in light of current events and whether studies speak to its effectiveness in obtaining reliable information. He will also present research on torture incidents documented by health professionals.

Robert Goldman is an expert on the law of armed conflict and is the co-director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University, Washington, D.C. He is a former vice president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Goldman will discuss the international legal definition of torture in light of recent events as well as government memos recently reported in the news.

Meredith Larson, associate, Campaign to Stop Torture, Amnesty International USA, Washington, D.C., is a survivor of political violence in Guatemala. She will address the global problems of torture during the war on terror.

"This is turning into a global street brawl with Al Qaeda and U.S. groups engaging in widespread abuses of human rights in which civilians are the ones getting hurt," Larson says.

This event is part of a series of international activities to observe the United Nation's International Day in Support of Victims of Torture (June 26). This annual observance is intended to raise awareness about the prevalence of torture around the world and highlight the work of organizations in preventing torture practices and treating survivors of torture.

For more information, visit:

Space is limited, and reporters and others must pre-register in order to attend. Reporters, contact [email protected] or 202-326-6440. Others should go to and complete the online registration form.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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