There’s international law, and then there’s the United States

Atul Gawande is horrified at the way medical doctors helped the torturers.

In a series of furious tweets on Wednesday, the New Yorker writer castigated clinicians for their role in helping the CIA carry out torture — and in some cases, effectively doing it themselves.

Reviewing the Senate Intelligence Committee’s newly released report, Gawande points to nearly a dozen individual examples of physicians playing a role in the CIA’s interrogation and treatment of detainees.

For instance, at least five detainees were subjected to forced rectal feeding or rectal rehydration — where CIA torturers infused large amounts of liquids into their rectums — one of the most gruesome parts of the Senate’s report, the Daily Beast‘s Shane Harris concludes.

But those procedures weren’t medically necessary. “It was doctors who devised the rectal infusions ‘as a means of behavior control,’” Gawande says.

And doctors also played a key role in helping detainees get back on their feet – so they could be tortured some more.

I just read Gawande’s series of tweets, and there’s one about doctors okaying forcing someone with broken bones in his foot to stand up for 52 hours.

…the Department of Defense issued a June 2005 memo that spelled out the “medical program principles and procedures for the protection and treatment” of detainees — presumably, a move that should [have] reinforced the need for proper medical care.

Yet on closer scrutiny, the guidelines were ethically “troubling,” Leonard Rubenstein and others wrote in JAMA. They created loopholes that allowed military physicians and other personnel to participate in torture activities, which were authorized by the United States but “absolutely prohibited” by international human rights law.

I hate it when the US flouts international human rights law. It’s shameful. Shameful.


  1. RJW says

    “I hate it when the US flouts international human rights law” …and presumably, its own Constitution.

    I’m sure Ophelia, that these revelations won’t inhibit your compatriots from appropriating the moral high ground and lecturing the rest of the world on human rights issues. However, it’s significant that Americans have exposed the truth about these atrocities, in many other countries both the victims and the truth would have been buried.

  2. says

    Well I’m not sure what you mean by compatriots. It won’t inhibit me from doing that, for one. I’m not going to let the crimes of Bush & his cronies stop me talking about the crimes of Boko Haram et al.

  3. RJW says


    Of course. My point was in regard to US government officials (not citizens) lecturing other countries about human rights violations while their war machine was simultaneously bombing the crap out of various defenceless Third World countries. Surely the lesson should have been learned in Indo China.

  4. says

    Back when I first read it, I was recommending Steven Miles’ Oath Betrayed on this subject. It’s been a while, but I assume I still would recommend it, possibly even more since this report was published.

  5. says

    18 U.S. Code Chapter 113C – TORTURE
    ( )

    (a) Offense.— Whoever outside the United States commits or attempts to commit torture shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both, and if death results to any person from conduct prohibited by this subsection, shall be punished by death or imprisoned for any term of years or for life.
    (b) Jurisdiction.— There is jurisdiction over the activity prohibited in subsection (a) if—
    (1) the alleged offender is a national of the United States; or
    (2) the alleged offender is present in the United States, irrespective of the nationality of the victim or alleged offender.
    (c) Conspiracy.— A person who conspires to commit an offense under this section shall be subject to the same penalties (other than the penalty of death) as the penalties prescribed for the offense, the commission of which was the object of the conspiracy.

    Pretty clear, huh?


    As used in this chapter—
    (1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
    (2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—
    (A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
    (B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
    (C) the threat of imminent death; or
    (D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and
    (3) “United States” means the several States of the United States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States.

    This would be that “rule of law” I’ve heard so much about.

  6. says

    I’m surprised Bush is still a supporter of capital punishment, given that some of the CIA’s victims died, and torture causing death is a capital crime in the US.

    I still do not support capital punishment, even for Bush or Cheney. Life imprisonment would be enough, though they probably cannot possibly do any more damage than they have already done.

  7. says

    The laws on this stuff are actually quite clear. There’s only big grey areas in the mind of those engaging in motivated reasoning. For example, you may be surprised to learn that War Crimes are also illegal!!! No, really!!!!

    (1) defined as a grave breach in any of the international conventions signed at Geneva 12 August 1949, or any protocol to such convention to which the United States is a party;
    (2) prohibited by Article 23, 25, 27, or 28 of the Annex to the Hague Convention IV, Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, signed 18 October 1907;
    (3) which constitutes a grave breach of common Article 3 (as defined in subsection (d)) when committed in the context of and in association with an armed conflict not of an international character; or

    Got it. Follow international law. Then you look at things like Article 25 of the Hague Convention 1907 —

    Art. 25.

    The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended is prohibited.

    I seem to recall there was some bombing of civilian buildings during the late unpleasantness in Germany, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, etc.

    Article 3 is particularly relevant:

    Art. 3.

    The armed forces of the belligerent parties may consist of combatants and non-combatants. In the case of capture by the enemy, both have a right to be treated as prisoners of war.

    Most of international humanitarian law avoids discussion of declared wars and whatnot; it simply deals with combatants and people are divided into two easy to use categories:
    – combatants
    – noncombatants
    There’s no such thing in international law as an “illegal combatant” (they’re a combatant!) But simple logic says that if you’re either a combatant or a non-combatant and both have a right to be treated as prisoners of war, then the grey area under which prisoners have been held in Gitmo or worse, is simply nonexistent and has never existed except in the minds of the liars in Washington.

  8. says

    After listening to some of the shit the US government spouts about what is or isn’t a war crime, I read all the relevant stuff a few years ago. It’s quite illuminating. (pro tip: there’s no such thing as “collateral damage” there is only “war crime”) At that time, I was trying to answer the question: “is cyberwar war crime?” It’s surprisingly straightforward: civilian communications systems are not military targets (which is why we call them “civilian”) and targeting them in a conflict is therefore a war crime.

  9. RJW says

    @14 Marcus Ranum,

    My guess is that currently the military could appropriate any civilian communications system and militarise it, so it’s doubtful that the distinction between ‘military and civilian’ systems has any practical application, except in very narrow circumstances.
    During WW2, because of the ‘Total War’ doctrine, the Allies regarded factories producing war materiel as legitimate targets, even though most of the workers were civilians.
    Then there’s the distinction between an ‘unjust war’ and ‘unjust conduct in a just war’, in my opinion, both the Second Gulf War and the invasion of Afghanistan were unjust wars, ie war crimes.

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