On May 9, Gina Haspel’s confirmation hearings for director of the CIA will begin. The outcome of her nomination will send a clear signal to the world about where the United States stands on torture. We need to land firmly on the side of human rights and human dignity.
Torture is not a topic people want to discuss or hear about. Yet, for many, the existence of torture in our world is all too real. As a doctor at the Yale Center for Asylum Medicine (YCAM) and a program manager of a survivor of torture program, we work every day with torture survivors. We attempt to help them heal, restore their self-worth and reduce the harmful impact of their experiences.
Torture by its nature strips a person of their voice, their power and their control. The effects of torture go beyond the physical scars left behind. Thomas, a young man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was detained and beaten so ferociously that his arm was broken.
It never healed properly and his arm is now shorter, permanently crooked and a source of daily pain. We try to help individuals like Thomas and to prevent others from suffering the same fate. Though torture is generally inflicted on an individual, the traumatic impact of torture extends to families and communities “by dehumanizing and breaking the will of victims, torturers set horrific examples for those who later come in contact with the victim. In this way, torture can break or damage the will and coherence of entire communities.”
Many Americans believe torture is something that happens in other nations led by dictators and despots. We can’t forget about our own human rights abuses in the post-9/11 war on terror when the U.S. used Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT). EIT is a euphemism for torture, designed to make brutal interrogation methods such as waterboarding sound legitimate.
Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and other “black sites” brought America’s use of torture into the public consciousness. Leaked photographs — medieval in their appearance, viscerally brutal — sparked public outrage and immediate condemnation. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s CIA torture report exposed the depths and detail of the United States’ use of torture during those years. The report led to President Obama’s 2009 signing of an executive order banning torture and, subsequently, to the 2015 McCain-Feinstein Anti-Torture Amendment, which passed in the Senate with an overwhelming bipartisan majority.
There has been bipartisan opposition to torture since the Convention Against Torture was signed by President Reagan in 1988 and a myriad of professional groups who have reiterated their objections to torture on the grounds that it is inhumane, ineffective and violates human rights.
During confirmation hearings of key Trump administration cabinet members, James Mattis, Mike Pompeo, Jeff Sessions, John Kelly and Rex Tillerson all publicly opposed torture and stated their commitment to uphold the legal ban against it.
It’s disappointing, then, that the president has refused to condemn torture and deeply troubling that he has indicated support for it. America remains a global leader and with this role comes the responsibility to condemn torture consistently and comprehensively. This means that we stand behind the McCain-Feinstein Anti-Torture Amendment and we support leaders who unequivocally condemn all forms of torture.
The U.S. commitment should include opposing those who have a record of involvement in and support of torture. The nominee for director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, has such a record. It is critical that we communicate to our leaders in Washington that this nomination is antithetical to historical bipartisan condemnation of torture. Our actions must mirror our values and our laws. As outlined in Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which supports that notion that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Elected officials must reject the nomination of Gina Haspel and insist that the new CIA director must embody the agency’s professional principles, values and aspirations that include adherence to standards of lawful conduct.