Study identifies why re-educating torturers may not work

November 21, 2014 by Audrey Breen, University of Virginia
Rachel Wahl, an assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education

Many human rights educators assume – incorrectly, as it turns out – that police and military officers in India who support the torture of suspects do so because they are either immoral or ignorant. This incorrect assumption weakens efforts to educate officers about human rights violations.

These findings from a recent study by Rachel Wahl, an assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, were published this month in the journal Law & Society Review.

"It turns out there is a fundamental flaw in many human rights educators' approach to training programs aimed at reducing the support for, and use of, torture," Wahl said.

In a 12-month field study, Wahl found that officers in India have strong moral convictions related to violence.

"The officers believe that providing equal protection to all people would undermine justice. In their minds, justice is served by harming or protecting people depending on who they are and what they have done," Wahl said. "So they believe that it is wrong to torture the wrong people, but not that torture is wrong."

This does not mean that officers live up to their own ideals; by their own admission, they do not.

"But even if they did uphold their ideals, they still would not protect human rights," Wahl said. "Understanding this is important to the design of human rights education and other torture prevention efforts."

In Wahl's interviews of 33 officers, nearly all agreed that torture is the right thing to do in specific circumstances. Several even admitted to participating in torture. In contrast, every officer emphatically agreed that corruption is wrong, though according to statistics, the majority of officers engage in corrupt behavior during their service.

The officers in Wahl's study were each voluntarily participating in, or had graduated from, a human rights education program for which they were paying their own money. The program leads to a master's degree in human rights.

Wahl found that many human rights educators were approaching their instruction in two main ways. The first tactic the educators used was moral persuasion, assuming that everyone operates on the same fundamental understanding of what is right and what is wrong, and that the officers lack any strong moral orientation.

The second type of instruction used was providing technical information with the assumption that officers lack knowledge. For example, instructors would explain how torture is defined and that it is outlawed under international and national laws.

These lessons did not alter the officers' belief that in their line of duty, torture is sometimes the right thing to do.

"The core of the disconnect between the educators and the officers is that the officers inhabit a very different moral universe than those conducting the training," Wahl said.

Wahl also clarifies that this disconnect is different than a "cultural" difference. The human rights educators and advocates were from the same location as the officers and have much in common in regard to religion and culture.  

According to Wahl, the study has wide implications for human rights education programs – and there are many worldwide. Currently, the United Nations website lists 28 funding sources for human rights education and advocacy programs around the world, many of which fund multiple programs.

"It is critical for human rights educators to understand their students' beliefs and the context of those beliefs," Wahl said. "It is essential to understand the moral identity of the people you are trying to change and then reach out to them.

"For example, it would be great in this case if the educators began their program by recognizing the way officers wish to see themselves: as defenders of the innocent and punishers of the guilty. Acknowledging their moral aspirations might better encourage buy-in to educators' messages," Wahl suggested.

Moreover, she suggested that officers need practical coaching in how to do their jobs without using torture.

"They know that it is illegal, and they know that human rights activists think it is wrong. But most believe that even if they wanted to stop using torture, it would be impossible to do their jobs successfully" without it, Wahl said, noting that some torture prevention projects are indeed attempting to provide this kind of training.

Wahl recognizes that the educators have a challenging job. The officers in India receive the message that torture is appropriate from nearly all levels of policy and military.

"The good news is that we have new information that can hopefully help advocates and be more effective in reducing the support for and number of incidents of ," Wahl said.

The research was funded by a Shearwater grant from New York University and the David L. Boren National Security Education Program Fellowship. Wahl worked as a research scientist at New York University, where she received her Ph.D. in 2013, and as a visiting scholar at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. She joined the U.Va. faculty this fall.

Explore further: Respect for human rights is improving

Related Stories

Respect for human rights is improving

May 12, 2014

By ignoring how the collection of data on political repression changes over time, human rights watchers may be misjudging reports that seem to show respect for human rights has not been improving, according to a Penn State ...

Interrogational torture: Effective or purely sadistic?

March 28, 2012

While government officials have argued that "enhanced interrogation techniques" are necessary to protect American citizens, the effectiveness of such techniques has been debated. According to a recent study, when torture ...

Recommended for you

A decade on, smartphone-like software finally heads to space

March 20, 2019

Once a traditional satellite is launched into space, its physical hardware and computer software stay mostly immutable for the rest of its existence as it orbits the Earth, even as the technology it serves on the ground continues ...

Tiny 'water bears' can teach us about survival

March 20, 2019

Earth's ultimate survivors can weather extreme heat, cold, radiation and even the vacuum of space. Now the U.S. military hopes these tiny critters called tardigrades can teach us about true toughness.

Researchers find hidden proteins in bacteria

March 20, 2019

Scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago have developed a way to identify the beginning of every gene—known as a translation start site or a start codon—in bacterial cell DNA with a single experiment and, through ...

Turn off a light, save a life, says new study

March 20, 2019

We all know that turning off lights and buying energy-efficient appliances affects our financial bottom line. Now, according to a new study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, we know that saving energy also saves ...

14 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

SamB
1 / 5 (2) Nov 21, 2014
I am sorry but they ARE ignorant and immoral.
I don't care what there excuse for torture is, it is still immoral and the cause is ignorance....
The way to educate them is to charge them, convict them and fire them all at once and the practice will stop.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (4) Nov 21, 2014
Actually it's not. First of all it's assault. Second of all it's against the law specifically- and is a specific additional charge added on top of assault charges- in most if not all states (sorry I'm not gonna go look at all of them; hire a lawyer). Third, it's a further felony in most states (less than the actual torture statute) to assault or torture under color of authority. Fourth, it's a civil rights violation under the US Code.

Don't lie. I dislike liars. Reported.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (2) Nov 21, 2014
As far as the article, what they need is training, not teaching. They already know torture is wrong, and most police joined the force to try to do good, not evil. The problem is how they were trained. They don't know any other way. They must be re-trained, and they must have alternatives to torture, that they believe will work (and that do actually work). And you have to get the old ones first; they're the trainers. Otherwise they'll just keep training the newbies the same, and you'll have to do it all again.

Hopefully people will listen to this woman. She's right. Great article.
kochevnik
1 / 5 (3) Nov 21, 2014
@DaSchneib Don't lie. I dislike liars. Reported.
If you don't like liars why to you support a government run by them? You don't even know your own legal system. Here is an education for you:

"John Yoo torture memo has finally been released, and it's pretty remarkable...it says that criminal law doesn't prohibit torture because it doesn't apply to the military. Treaties don't prohibit torture because they only apply to uniformed enemy soldiers. Ditto for the War Crimes Act. And federal statutes prohibiting torture don't prohibit torture because they don't apply to conduct on military bases."

"The president can authorize any action at all as commander-in-chief in wartime. Congress can't bind him, treaties can't bind him, and the courts can't bind him. The scope of power the memos suggest is, almost literally, absolute. And since this is a war without end, the grant of power is also without end."

http://www.washin...3450.php
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (4) Nov 21, 2014
Reported.
Shootist
2 / 5 (4) Nov 21, 2014
social foundations of education


one of the "soft" sciences? Gad! What a waste of human potential.

And Da Schneib, the crime is battery not assault.
Da Schneib
3.4 / 5 (5) Nov 21, 2014
Causing or credibly stating you intend to cause gross bodily injury is assault, in most states. Where do you live, Arizona? Texas? Some other dirty place?
kochevnik
1 / 5 (6) Nov 21, 2014
@DaSchroom Causing or credibly stating you intend to cause gross bodily injury is assault, in most states. Where do you live, Arizona? Texas? Some other dirty place?
You're too zoned out to understand the hypothetical. You need to cut back on the meth, DaSchneib. The shadow people living in the trees are coming to get you and the police are in the bushes while an Islamic fundamentalist is hiding under your bed

I live in Russia. Come get us. Oh wait. You tried that already. Oh well winners never quit and quitters never win, right?
kochevnik
1 / 5 (3) Nov 21, 2014
John Yoo architect post-9/11 Bush Administration legal policy says President can legally torture children:
Cassel: If the president deems that he's got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person's child, there is no law that can stop him?
Yoo: No treaty.
Cassel: Also no law by Congress — that is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo…
Yoo: I think it depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that.

http://revcom.us/...yoo.html
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (4) Nov 21, 2014
Yoo should be disbarred and thrown out of academia, and Bush and Cheney should be in prison.

Any questions?

You might want to keep in mind that the US isn't all the same, any more than Russia is, duh.
kochevnik
1 / 5 (4) Nov 21, 2014
If you value honesty so much, why don't you just admit you enjoy living in a country that sanctions torture DaSchroom? It seems that you're hiding your support of torture by doing nothing about it and shouting histrionics as a distraction whenever someone points out the fact torture is legal in USA. Unfortunately it is illegal in most of the world so torture is not one of your freedoms but your loss of liberty

In my travel USA is all the same. Departure in any direction corresponds with an increase in IQ
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (4) Nov 21, 2014
Because I don't sanction torture, and it's over my protests, liar.

I voted for Clinton, Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Obama, and Obama.

Why don't you admit you enjoy living in a country that can't make up its mind to stop trying to bully people all the time? Join the human race.

And while we're talking about human rights, perhaps you should review this: http://www.hrw.or...a/russia

At least I don't live in a country that abuses disabled people, suppresses news by shooting editors and putting them in prison, disappears people, and harasses human rights reporting groups. Not to mention has a former KGB (Kontora Grubykh Banditov) officer responsible for torture done by his own hand as its leader.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (2) Nov 22, 2014
If you don't like liars why to you support a government run by them? You don't even know your own legal system. Here is an education for you:
@kochevnik
1- torture is illegal i ALL us states as well as for all citizens: see http://law.justia...on-2340a
2- it violates the constitution, human rights and other laws

And Da Schneib, the crime is battery not assault.
@Shootist
actually, you are thinking of the classification of "Assault" and "Battery"
two separate distinct classifications which may be levied (conditional) upon the aggressor depending upon the type of torture

Assault being attack but not necessarily contact (just the attempt is enough to get classified as assault- verbal abuse/threats is/are considered assault)

Battery requiring physical contact between the aggressor and victim

torture is defined by law here: http://law.justia...sec2340/

kochevnik
not rated yet Nov 22, 2014
@Stumpy 1- torture is illegal i ALL us states as well as for all citizens: see http://law.justia...on-2340a
Don't tell me that, Captain. Tell that to the people your government tortured. For instance Khalid Sheikh Mohammed watched his son being tortured by your government then "confessed" to being the criminal terrorist mastermind who planned all of 9/11. Not bad for a literally retarded man! Maybe you can find some retarded men, torture them, and have them confess to shooting JFK, MLK, and giving Gorbachev that red spot

Seriously I accept your honest ignorance about your government. Who really wants to know it's sick secrets? In contrast several posters here probably have sexual fantasies about crushing the testicles of little boys, and you have two presidents who sympathize with their "cause." Well hopefully that's an aberration. But given Bush's NAZI ties, I doubt Jeb will be kinder to children's genitalia

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.