Yes, whywhywhy, This Is Torture

Over on PZ’s thread on the AAP’s opposition to Trump’s monstrous child isolation policy, commenter whywhywhy asked,

How is this different than state institutionalized torture?

Let’s find out!

From the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment:


Article 1

1. For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions. [emphasis mine]

Based on the Convention’s definition, with its concluding caveat, it is easily arguable that mere removal of a child from a parent upon a parent’s arrest does not constitute torture. However, this changes as the age of the child declines, it also does not provide any exemption for cases where children are removed from a parent without that parent being arrested for a legal violation – as we are currently doing with parents who request asylum through normal and legal procedures.

Even more, the “no hugging toddlers” rule certainly inflicts “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental” on toddlers who require physical contact and affection for normal development and suffer complete anguish without it. Even if a parent has been arrested, there is no way in which a “no hugging toddlers” rule is required incident to the separation of a child from a parent upon that parent’s arrest. So even when an arrest is legally appropriate and separation from a child is directly incident to that arrest, that final clause does not save the Trump administration’s policies.

Don’t believe me? Here’s Amnesty International in their release USA: POLICY OF SEPARATING CHILDREN FROM PARENTS IS NOTHING SHORT OF TORTURE:

“This is a spectacularly cruel policy, where frightened children are being ripped from their parent’s arms and taken to overflowing detention centers, which are effectively cages. This is nothing short of torture. The severe mental suffering that officials have intentionally inflicted on these families for coercive purposes, means that these acts meet the definitions of torture under both US and international law,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas Director.”

I don’t know anything about US law in this area, so they don’t merely confirm my reading of international law, they add substantially to it by addressing US law as well. As to the UN Convention Against Torture, if you’re wondering, the US did indeed sign and ratify the treaty more than 20 years ago.

PZ also properly referenced the Harlow study in which very young monkeys were deprived of any physical contact which was not minimally necessary to meet the physical needs of the monkeys. Nutrition was provided by “robots” – essentially monkey dolls with a bottle protruding in such a way that the baby could feed as needed. Some of these robots were mere wire outlines. Others were wire outlines covered in a soft terry cloth. Some monkeys had one of each in their cages, and when the wire-only mamabots were the milk-dispensers, the monkeys still spent most of their time clinging to the non-feeding terry cloth covered mamadolls.

What happened to the monkeys with no mamadoll available as an option?

monkeys raised by wire mesh surrogates did not retreat to their mothers when scared. Instead, they threw themselves on the floor, clutched themselves, rocked back and forth, and screamed in terror.

In case you missed it, this behavior very similar to what Dr. Colleen Kraft witnessed at the ICE detention center from the toddler deprived of human contact.

There is no question we’re inflicting severe suffering that is not merely incidental to necessary actions of law enforcement. But what about all the purposive requirements? After all, torture isn’t just when a government employee accidentally runs over a parent with a government-owned car. That’s horrible, but it’s not a violation of the Convention Against Torture because we recognize something special about suffering inflicted intentionally and specifically for the purpose of coercion.

Well, no problem there. The Trump administration has been quite happy to announce that they are undertaking these measures to deter parents from coming to the US. We are freely admitting that this is an intentional effort to coerce different behavior from 3rd parties, as the Convention includes in its definition of torture.

So, yeah. It’s fucking torture, according to international law. There really aren’t any two ways about it.




  1. rpjohnston says

    Going to point out that forbidding physical contact from non-trained agents for legal reasons is an easily defensible point. If you’re going to go with “ICE agents won’t even hug the kids!” you’re going to be stomped. The Government CAN provide specialists – nannies – to provide nurturing, but if you argue that, you concede the abuse in the first place. So that issue is a nonstarter, as far as I can see, as far as the public relations campaign needed to end this.

  2. DanDare says

    Its horrifying.
    Here in Oz we did it to refugees that we incarcerate off shore. We put them there so they have no access to Australian justice. Then we seperate the kids because they shouldn’t be in detention under those aweful conditions. But neither should their parents.

  3. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    It wasn’t just the ICE agents. It was the staff responsible for direct care of the children. I’m not asserting that they were trained child development specialists, but they were the ones given the job of caring for the kids needs, and they weren’t allowed to touch the kids.

    …and I see what you mean about the public relations campaign.

  4. robert79 says

    I would also classify it as terrorism, from wikipedia: “Terrorism is, in the broadest sense, the use of intentionally indiscriminate violence as a means to create terror among masses of people; or fear to achieve a financial, political, religious or ideological aim.”

    The violence may not be physical, but it is violence nonetheless. Furthermore, it’s being done for a political aim, as Trump is using this violence against children as a means to blackmail (and shock, and terrify) the democrats into building his wall. Hard as it is, I do hope the democrats maintain US policy and do not negotiate with terrorists.

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