Torture, Human Rights, and Terrorism

Fernando Botero, Aryeh Neier, José Zalaquett, Jenny S. Martinez and Philip Zimbardo

Fernando Botero: The Abu Ghraib Series

April 7, 2007

Torture, Human Rights and Terrorism


Aryeh Neier is the President of the Open Society Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Law at New York University.

José Zalaquett is the president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and a Professor of Law and co-director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Chile’s Law School.

Jenny S. Martinez argued the 2004 case Rumsfeld v. Padilla before the U.S. Supreme Court and is an Associate Professor of Law at Stanford University.

Philip Zimbardo is the former President of the American Psychological Association, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University, and the author of The Lucifer Effect: Why Good People Turn Evil.

Exhibit Information

Organized by the Center for Latin American Studies, these paintings have never been displayed in a public institution in the United States.

The New York Times said the images "do something the harrowing photographs of the naked, blindfolded and tormented prisoners do not: they restore their dignity and humanity without diminishing their agony or the absolute injustice of their situation."

The Financial Times reported, "Full of vivid primary colours, they [the oil paintings and drawings] are reminiscent of the work of socially conscious Mexican muralists such as Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, artists who fascinated the young Botero in Medellin."

Peter Selz, Emeritus Professor of History of Art at Berkeley, called Botero "Latin America's most celebrated artist," and said the exhibit was "without doubt the most controversial and important show seen hereabouts in many years," in the Berkeley Daily Planet. 

Related Articles

Louis Freedburg, "California Cultures: The Art of Abu Ghraib," San Francisco Chronicle, January 22, 2007.

Roberta Smith, "Botero Restores the Dignity of Prisoners at Abu Ghraib," New York Times, November 15, 2006. 

Susan Sonntag, "On the Torture of Others," New York Times Magazine, May 23, 2004.

More reactions from the press.

Event Summary

Torture, Human Rights and Terrorism 
By Emil M. Ray

“Should we or should we not?” The use of torture in the fight against terrorism has become one of the decade’s most hotly contested issues yet trailblazers in law, psychology and human rights were able to bring fresh perspectives to the ongoing debate at the CLAS forum, “Torture, Human Rights and Terrorism.” They explored torture as both the exercise of absolute power and the logical outcome of an aspiration for unqualified authority.

President of the Open Society Institute, Aryeh Neier, framed the panelists’ remarks by stating that torture is the act of wielding absolute power by securing the victim’s complete submission. The desire to demonstrate power underlies both the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib and the war in Iraq, he argued, and the emergence of this desire was a foreseeable reaction to the weakness exposed by the Sept. 11 attacks. “Nine-eleven was an extraordinary demonstration of American vulnerability,” he observed, “as enormous buildings were destroyed by 19 people armed with box cutters.” The American response was to make a show of force in order to reassert the nation’s authority.

The effort to secure complete submission, either through torture or military force, is doomed to fail, Neier warned, because resistance will continue. Ultimately, he made a moral argument, calling on the audience to reject not only the use of torture, but also the concept of absolute power and its political and military expressions.

The next panelist, art critic and human rights lawyer José Zalaquett, contended that art plays a significant role in reflecting upon and rejecting the vision of absolute power. Reminding the audience that art both reflects the times and shapes them, Zalaquett described three phases that mark Western art’s shifting representation of torture and war

In the first phase, extending from the Renaissance to the end of the 18 th century, art did not take a humanistic stance on torture and war. This changed at the beginning of the 19 th century, when some artists took on the role of bearing witness, denouncing torture and vindicating victims. Artists such as Goya realistically and critically depicted atrocities and political repression. His painting “The Third of May,” which vividly portrays a public execution by firing squad, was cited by Zalaquett as the quintessential example of this period. The third phase, beginning around the Vietnam War, turned to the task of preserving the collective memory and developing a universal moral interpretation of torture and war. Works in this period tried to convey a sense of the immensity of atrocities spiritually rather than graphically. One example is the Berlin Holocaust memorial, a vast field of 2,700 stone slabs. Another is Alberto Jaar’s work, “The Eyes of Gutete Emerita,” in which thousands of slides rest in a mountain on a table, each containing the same image: the eyes of one victim of the Rwandan massacre.

From these contemporary works, Zalaquett raised evocative questions. Can art help to redistribute power? Can the act of witnessing, committed to the collective memory through art, bring hope?

Hope may arise from artistic representation after atrocities, but emerging legal representations of torture signal a crisis of morality, argued Stanford law professor Jenny Martinez. Though torture has been with us throughout history, Martinez conceded, the current effort to give torture legal footing is much more sinister than its mere existence.

Martinez deftly traced the ways in which recent legal developments in the U.S. have upended the centuries-old legal prohibition on torture. English common law, from which the American legal system is descended, prohibited torture in the 14 th century, but gave the king authority to personally authorize torture in particular cases. However, by the end of the 17 th century, the king himself was barred from authorizing torture. This limitation on the exercise of absolute power was in effect when the United States declared its independence. However, since 9/11, the prohibition on torture has been under attack, and torture has become legally sanctioned for the first time in centuries. Provisions allowing coerced testimony and removing criminal punishment for commission of war crimes are two examples of this shift.

Martinez argued that the legal sanction of torture serves as a “loaded gun” for all countries to use in arguing to allow torture. In addition, Martinez warned that legal justifications for torture, like the justifications for Japanese internment in Word War II, lead to the degradation of the legal system and society as a whole. No country can be proud of exercising absolute power over others.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo closed the panel with valuable insights gleaned from his famous prison experiment which pitted two identical groups of study volunteers against each other. One group was given the role of prison guards and the other that of prisoners. Within days the prison environment implemented by the experiment’s authors led the “guards” to engage in abuse of the “prisoners.” The results were so extreme that the experiment — which was intended to last two weeks — had to be halted after just six days.

Photos of the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib didn’t surprise Zimbardo, as participants in his prison experiment had also attempted to force the “prisoners” into complete submission. Remarkably, they had even employed near identical methods of humiliation, including the use of nudity and sexual degradation and the placement of bags on prisoners’ heads.

he lesson, Zimbardo argued, is that the prison guards in Abu Ghraib weren’t simply “bad apples.” Instead, they were normal people placed in an environment that encouraged the abuse of those under their control. Zimbardo called this environment a “bad barrel” and suggested that the designers and builders of that barrel should be held accountable. He followed a chain of responsibility to the highest ranks of the political and military structure. As Martinez had previously noted, although the Bush administration did not support purposeless torture, allowing torture in some circumstances opened the door for it to be used in others.

The CLAS forum was a lively dialogue, in which each panelist’s presentation enriched the others. This interaction among a variety of disciplines helped to illuminate common streams of analysis on the connection between torture and power. This, in turn, helped to create a broader historical and philosophical framework within which to approach the debate on torture and terror.

Aryeh Neier is President of the Open Society Institute and former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch; José Zalaquett is Codirector of the Human Rights Center at the University of Chile and former President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; Jenny S. Martinez is Associate Professor of Law at Stanford University and argued the 2004 case Rumsfeld v. Padilla before the Supreme Court; and Philip Zimbardo is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford and author of a forthcoming book on Abu Ghraib. The panel spoke at the Center for Latin American Studies’ forum on "Torture, Human Rights, and Terrorism," held at UC Berkeley on March 7, 2007.

Emil M. Ray is a student at Boalt Hall School of Law and an intern in Boalt’s International Human Rights Law Clinic.