Mitchell’s testimony not only highlights a moral and legal failure of that era, it serves as a warning for what could lie ahead. This morally repugnant practice is not only a breach of medical and professional ethics, it gives torture perpetrators across the world a green light.
Torture is rampant around the globe. After the Second World War, leaders came together and put treaties and protections in place; they said ‘never again’. Organisations like Freedom from Torture were founded to shine a light on torture, and hold torturing states to account. But in 2020, the sky is darkening.
The US’ president Donald Trump has stated that torture ‘absolutely works’ and promoted figures from that ‘war on terror’ era to prominent positions: Gina Haspel, a woman accused of running a ‘blacksite’ in Thailand where waterboarding and other methods took place, is now Director of the CIA. Marshall Billingslea, an ex-army official with a well-documented history of advocating torture, has been nominated for a top US human rights role.
Shameless promotors of torture are taking to the helm of governments – including in other liberal democracies like Brazil and the Philippines. In the UK, our leaders continue to block the truth about our own government’s complicity in the US torture programme.
In this frightening climate, it is more important than ever to remind ourselves of what we stand for. The testimony of Mitchell may shed light on the scale of the US’ torture programme. But if we really want justice, Mitchell and others involved in the practice must be held accountable for the betrayal of their professional ethics and the untold suffering they have caused.
A society is only as good as its values, and attitudes towards torture are a good litmus test for that. Snyder writes, “the minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote…our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much”. Ethical and legal principles can never be compromised in the mistaken belief that it will make us safer. As a health professional, I believe it is important for our work to underpin these standards. As a human rights advocate, I know our humanity depends on it.
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