Adding insult to injury
George Bush's repeated claim that he promotes human rights is inconsistent with his justification of the use of torture
Let us be clear: waterboarding is torture. There is no argument to be made that can alter that fact.
It is a terrifying ordeal. A person is strapped to a board, often upside down, with their mouth gagged by a cloth. Gallons of water are then poured over their face. The victim's fear of drowning links with their most primal instinct for survival with the immediate response of panic as the human reflexes struggle against an inability to breathe. The instinct is to try to escape while at the same time being crushed by the sense that it is futile to try to do so.
Is this how we defend human rights? Is this behaviour consonant with a government that says it believes in human dignity?
From years of working with those who do manage to survive, I have no doubt whatsoever that waterboarding is torture in the extreme. It leaves victims helpless and unable to control an overwhelming sense of fear. They are convinced they are dying, and the lack of oxygen to their brain disables the emotional ability to cope.
It is a particularly vile experience because of the power the torturer holds over the victim. The torturer creates the anticipatory fear that next time, they will not stop until the victim is dead. No doubt, this is what the victims of waterboarding are told as torture never occurs in isolation the physical suffering is always accompanied by psychological manipulation.
The sense of panic that torture produces can stay with victims for months, years and even a lifetime. The ordeal is relived with inescapable intensity, prompting flashbacks and anxiety about a total loss of control and imminent death.
Given what we know from thousands of victims seen by the Medical Foundation over the past two decades, waterboarding like every other method of torture used by governments dehumanises the individual and cripples their emotional and physical capacities.
There are internationally agreed standards that set out the obligations of states, including the US, to respect the human rights of every individual with no exceptions. The UN convention against torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment could not be clearer; torture is "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person".
The repeated refrain by the US president George Bush that he promotes human rights and human dignity is untenable. Human rights are about protecting individuals. Torture is about shattering lives. The two do not equate: decades of history and those who survive torture are living proof of that.
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