Today, as citizens, patriots, and protesters descend on Washington DC, to observe, celebrate, or decry the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States, we must all rise to the most pressing challenge of our time—the fight for justice, accountability, human rights-based policy, and, most importantly, the definitive abolition of torture.
As a member of the AAA’s Committee for Human Rights, I’m proud that we have taken a clear and unequivocal role in fighting to ensure that torture never again becomes an accepted US tool at home or abroad. In our “Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment”—adopted by the Committee for Human Rights of the American Anthropological Association in January 9, 2017, and by the Executive Board of the AAA January 19, 2017—we recognize that anthropologists and peers in other disciplines have a clarion responsibility to be at the vanguard, defending human rights around the world.
In its 1947 and 1999 Statements on Human Rights, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) issued a strong declaration that “as a professional organization of anthropologists, the AAA has long been, and should continue to be, concerned whenever human difference is made the basis for a denial of basic human rights.” In the 2012 Statement on Ethics, the AAA calls upon all members to respect the inherent dignity and worth of the individual, and to strive for the preservation and protection of fundamental human rights recognizing the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.
But today, these declarations are facing their greatest test. Trump has made it clear he wants to bring back torture. Trump, has openly advocated for the reintroduction of torture, such as “waterboarding” and other techniques that “are so much worse” and “much stronger” as weapons against the nation’s enemies. Trump has also picked Mike Pompeo to head the CIA—a man who previously called the CIA’s program of torture and kidnapping under the Bush administration “within the law” and “within the Constitution.” We must be vocal and we must be vigilant. We must never allow Trump to resuscitate the CIA torture program.
A revival of torture by the US would be a foreign policy catastrophe for our country and a moral calamity for all of us. We would be the only state in the world to pull out of the Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the first state to pull out of Convention Against Torture. Any US claims to human rights leadership would evaporate; all our efforts to criticize the records of other states would be perceived universally as hypocritical. A torture renaissance would be a triumph for the adversaries of human rights globally, an indelible stain on our conscience, and a boon to every torturer on the planet.
Some 1.4 million survivors of torture live in the US alone, and many suffer from long‐term, multiple psychological and physical problems. Victims of torture must have the opportunity for redress and be awarded fair and adequate compensation and appropriate socio-medical rehabilitation. Survivors of torture are to be revered and honored; and the crimes to which they were subject are to be feared and categorically rejected. These crimes should make us all shudder with horror. Torture, of anyone, anywhere, anytime, affects us all. By dehumanizing one individual, by standing by and letting it happen without speaking, we dehumanize everyone, including ourselves.
The fight against torture starts today. Human rights must be non-negotiable for the Trump Administration. As scholars, I implore you to stand up and reaffirm publicly that “there are no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether induced by a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, that may be invoked as a justification of torture” (United Nations Declaration and Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Article 2.2).
Drawing upon the AAA’s long‐standing commitment to basic human rights, I ask you to pledge today to affirm to yourself, your peers, your family, your colleagues, your supervisors, and your students, that no anthropologist shall knowingly engage in, tolerate, direct, support, advise, or offer training or research/knowledge that facilitates the practice of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. And I ask you to pledge today to affirm that, should torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment evolve during a procedure where you are present, you shall attempt to intervene to stop such behavior, and failing that, exit the procedure and act on your ethical responsibility to report these acts to the appropriate authorities.
On January 20, 2017, stand up and declare your unequivocal, inviolable, and trenchant opposition to torture in all its forms.
Benjamin J. Lawrance is the Hon. Barber B. Conable, Jr. Endowed Chair in International Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology, professor of history and anthropology, and the director of the Program in International and Global Studies. He is the author and editor of 11 books, including Adjudicating Refugee and Asylum Status: The Role of Witness, Expertise, and Testimony (2015), with Galya Ruffer, and has served as an expert witness in over 380 asylum claims from West Africans, many of whom are survivors of torture.
Human Rights Watch is the AN column of the AAA Committee for Human Rights and is edited by Alayne Unterberger (firstname.lastname@example.org).