The Magazine

Defining Torture Down

Every policy the left dislikes becomes a crime against humanity.

Apr 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 28 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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Now they are defining “torture” down. “They” in this instance are the international community in general and the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, the Argentine human rights activist Juan E. Méndez, in particular. 

Méndez—whose full title is “special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”—just released a report to the General Assembly on torture “in health care settings.” It is a startling read. He brands with that extreme term not only medical actions and omissions that clearly are not torture as most people understand it, but also national policies disfavored by the international ruling class. Thus, “The Committee against Torture has repeatedly expressed concerns about restrictions on access to abortion and about absolute abortion bans as violating the prohibition on torture and ill treatment.” Unstated (but implied) is that pro-life countries like Ireland are committing crimes against humanity.

Torture, however, has a specific definition. According to the U.N.’s Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, it 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 .  .  . has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him .  .  . 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.

Two clear examples of torture are “disappearing” a political prisoner in indefinite solitary confinement and kneecapping a prisoner during police interrogation to obtain a confession. But Méndez reports that the definition of torture and ill treatment is subject to “evolving interpretation” and “ongoing reassessment in light of the present-day conditions and the changing values of democratic societies.” Whenever international bureaucrats want to “reassess” venerable definitions to reflect “changing values,” hold on to your national autonomy.

Not by accident, Méndez places special emphasis on “reproductive rights violations” as torture—and in so doing conflates mere policy differences and clear abuse:

International and regional human rights bodies have begun to recognize that abuse and mistreatment of women seeking reproductive health services can cause tremendous and lasting physical and emotional suffering, inflicted on the basis of gender. Examples of such violations include abusive treatment and humiliation in institutional settings; involuntary sterilization; denial of legally available health services such as abortion and post-abortion care; .  .  .  female genital mutilation; violation of medical secrecy and confidentiality in health care settings, such as denunciations of women by medical personnel when evidence of illegal abortion is found [italics added].

Equating involuntary sterilization and female genital mutilation—unquestionably cruel and abusive practices and arguably instances of torture—with the denial of an abortion or a violation of confidentiality obviously diminishes the truly abusive nature of the former. Méndez even goes so far as to claim that denying prenatal testing to reveal “a potential fetal abnormality” could be torture because “access to information about reproductive health is imperative to a woman’s ability to exercise reproductive autonomy, and the rights to health and physical integrity.” One could certainly argue that impeding such testing is wrong or misguided—but torture

Méndez further distorts the meaning of torture in dealing with transgender issues. For example, he declares that laws requiring sex reassignment surgery before a person can legally register a sex change amount to coerced “sterilization” and may thus be a “severe and irreversible intrusion into a person’s physical integrity.” 

Prostitutes—or rather, “sex workers”—are also supposedly tortured when required to undergo “mandatory HIV testing and exposure of their HIV status.” Other people infected with HIV are also tortured by “compulsory HIV testing,” which Méndez claims “may constitute degrading treatment if it is done on a discriminatory basis.” Really? After New York passed a law requiring testing of all newborns and disclosure of status to their mothers—bitterly resisted by some AIDS activists and feminists—thousands of babies’ and women’s lives were saved.

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