Government-Administrated Torture

Government-Administrated Torture

This is an excerpt of the first chapter from my undergraduate thesis entitled Holes in the Historical Record: The Politics of Torture in Great Britain, the United States, and Argentina, 1869-1977.

Perpetrators of unfathomable acts of violence against innocent, unarmed individuals are not always crazed, radical individuals—monsters psychologically compartmentalized as the other—existing independently of the government. Rather, perpetrators of torture and murder, counter to common knowledge, often act on behalf of their domestic governments. As governments exist to maintain systems of laws to uphold justice and to attempt to ensure that violent individuals do not endanger innocent members of society, existing threats to society or possible dangers are often misidentified, often purposely, and, more notably, mishandled.

The continued use of torture, and the inevitable violation of human rights that accompanies physical or psychological attached sufferings, raises important questions about the objects of such a crude, barbaric act. Why does the repetitive implementation of torture against women, resulting in severe, unnoticed human rights violations occur? And why does it matter? Individuals are physically tortured as a result of the inaction of others to offer protection from perpetrators. Is the build up to physical torture gradual? It would appear that something more important than the physical wellbeing of the individual takes precedent over the pain of the tortured in these situations. Is the state able to justly determine circumstances under which human rights should be fundamentally disregarded?

The concept of human rights emerged with the rise in importance allotted to the single, independent individual throughout the eighteenth century. By the end of the eighteenth century, it was solidified with Thomas Jefferson’s argument that rights were in fact self-evident merely on account of biological existence. George Mason first articulated the existence of what he termed the “rights of man” in the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. The indisputable existence of natural rights, applicable to all of mankind, again is acknowledged in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in France in 1789.[1]  A central paradox emerging from these otherwise positive declarations, however, revolves around the need to assert the existence of these rights in an official document in the first place. The assertion of the existence of human rights in these documents validates the need to argue for their existence; if they were self-evident, they would not need to be asserted in a declaration in the first place. Nonetheless, these three documents, along with documents of similar type, such as the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified in 1948, collectively endorse three tenets: rights must be natural—that is, inherent—rights must be equal—that is, the same for all—and rights must be universal—that is, applicable across the globe, regardless of differences in domestic forms of government.

Despite undeniable progress over the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries in articulating the existence of human rights, human rights and violations of human rights still are not universally defined and enforced.  The differing components of human rights, whether according to an international body like the United Nations or the average individual, continue to vary based on reason and the ability to empathize.[2] Reason has repeatedly approved of the existence of the natural rights of man. Different political leaders, whether in the United States, France, or in a collective body of nations have written and ratified multiple declarations.[3] With social and political changes, however, the ability to internalize the sufferings of others is consistently changing. The distinct emotion of the individual fosters a one-of-a-kind definition of the specifics of which fundamental rights should be granted to each being. Lynn Hunt describes this phenomenon in greater detail in Inventing Human Rights: A History, describing, “empathy depends on the recognition that others feel and think as we do, that our inner feelings are alike in some fundamental fashion…to have rights go along with [our] bodily separation a person’s selfhood must be appreciated in some more emotional fashion.” Reason allows us to grant one another human rights as we recognize that other individuals, although separate, autonomous beings share something in common with us. Despite an inherent separateness, as humans experiencing the same situations and enduring the same or similar emotions, we realize how similar we are to one another. Hunt continues, “Human rights depend both on self-possession and on the recognition that all others are equally self-possessed.”[4] Sometimes, however, such recognition that others are equally self-possessed fails to materialize. Instead, groupthink allows for the politicization of someone as an enemy of state—as the other. As a result, human rights are often violated due to the absence of the ability to empathize with the sufferings of others.

Lack of empathy, despite the presence of reason and good judgment, can explain why women, universally, were denied fundamental human rights before the twentieth century.[5] Reason, as asserted in the Declaration of Independence and Declaration of Rights of Man, respectively, dictated, “all men are created equal” and “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” Similarly, each Declaration explicitly defined rights as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” or “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.”[6] Yet two world powers, the United States and France, founded to secure these accepted rights and to derive power from the consent of the governed, denied the necessity to grant half of the body of such consent—women. Whether stemming from a biological or psychological basis, men disregarded the rights of women for more than one hundred years. Is a lack of empathy to blame for such negligence? Have social interactions between the sexes increased to sufficient levels for men to relate to the necessity of rights for women as well? Or is such empathy continually changing amid shifts in political context?

When we explore the treatment of female activists in late Victorian Great Britain, the post-Great War United States, and post-Peronist Argentina, it is important to clarify a mutually applicable definition of human rights than can accommodate the experiences and feelings of activist women in all three places, instead of foisting our own expectations on the past. In this thesis, I propose, as does historian Lynn Hunt and other western scholars, that human right is grounded in the fundamental integrity and ownership of each individual’s human body, specifically the right to protection from any violence inflicted to cause pain to the human body.

As a student of human rights, I have an unusual personal history in which I have been always ware of the limitations and power of my body. While, based on reason, I acknowledge the importance of human rights as commonly accepted, my emotional basis for valuing human rights, and my ability to empathize with the sufferings of other individuals, is specific. Since I was born with a joint disease called arthrogryposis, I spent many nights of my childhood in a hospital bed, recovering from orthopedic surgeries. One pivotal moment in particular, at the age of eight years old, sticks out in my emotional pedigree as a lasting source of anxiety. I had just undergone a procedure to insert four staples in my knee, and it was my third day in the hospital. IV needles were not yet plastic, but rather in the 1990s they were still unpliable, sharp needles. A new male nurse came on shift and tried to proceed with the normal routine of changing the IV fluid and administering morphine directly to my IV using a syringe. Given my petite stature, however, the needle did not remain connected to my vein. I felt the needle completely slip out and shift positions. Despite my plea to the nurse that he temporarily halt the injection, so that the needle could be properly reinserted to my vein, this aggressive attendant ignored me, a mere child assumed to be unversed in formal medical procedure. The nurse, simply repeating, “You’re fine,” continued without further justification or empathy. After a seemingly perpetual sixty seconds my hand started shaking violently and visibly gushing blood. The vein had popped, and, thanks to the multiple incisions made by repeated bouts of jerking the needle around the area of its previous residency, blood vigorously burst out of my hand and down my arm. The nurse, suddenly slacking his previous clenched lower jaw, simply stared at me. My voice had been rendered silent. I had endured pain, and been left with a sizable scar on my hand, all at the fault of someone else.  The nurse, unsympathetic, simply inserted another IV into my other hand and left the room to visit the patient in the room next to me. No one knew about my sufferings or my physical pain; no one was punished. One of thousands of patients in the hospital system, I was rendered silenced and alone after such an abrupt experience of suffering. No evidence documented my pain, no one in the public knew of my helpless state, and no one benefited—not even the nurse, the perpetrator.

After self-reflection, it is evident that, thirteen years later, the emotions from this experience have strongly dictated my personal sense of human rights.  More importantly, because of such an experience, I hold a central value in challenging a specific violation of human rights: security of an individual’s body from violence wrongly inflicted by others. I understand the experience of an American patient in a hospital bed subject to violence and pain at the hands of an inexperienced nurse does not compare to the experiences of political prisoners. Nonetheless, the pain experienced as a result of this physical violence elicits an emotional understanding for those whose bodily integrity is violated now and in times past. As Elaine Scarry points out in her book The Body in Pain, physical pain, excluding the psychological impacts, is without object and cannot be adequately described either in a written or pictured representation.[7]

The violence faced by political prisoners, and the resulting physical and emotional pain resulting from such a total loss of control over one’s human body, in our post-1948 world, is is a direct violation of a fundamental human right and a violation of the “right of man.” After more than two hundred years of discussion, the principle that each person has a right to his or her inviolable person as a physical and psychological body was validated and defined in the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Specifically, articles three, five, and nineteen postulate these fundamental inviolable rights. In Article Three of this Declaration, it states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”[8] Such a security of person, however, is further explored and defined. Article Five details, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” While cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatments and punishments are open to some interpretation and welcome debate on further definitions for specific examples of these three types of treatments, it is indisputable that, at a base level, torturous acts, and those that are cruel, inhuman or degrading inflict bodily pain.

In addition to protecting individuals from physical pain against their will, the Declaration of Human Rights further and specifically protects all individuals, and thus political activists, from such punishment merely on account of differing ideology. Article Nineteen of the Declaration states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”[9] The Declaration validates the common belief that each individual inherently holds opinions and beliefs differing from those of others; subsequently, it ensures the protection of individuals holding diverse opinions. Furthermore, the Declaration allows individuals to share their opinions with any form of media or expression. The Declaration was ratified by Great Britain, the United States, and Argentina on December 16, 1949.

While Josephine Butler and Alice Paul both advocated for changes in their governments pre-1948, before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this Declaration solidified pre-existing, accepted norms. The Bill of Rights of 1689 in Great Britain granted Members of Parliament freedom of speech and the Libel Act of 1792 expanded this free speech as it granted the power to decide the legality of criminal libels with juries, rather than government-employed judges. Although Great Britain did not have a formalized law granting free speech, such a right is favored in its system of common law. Additionally, in the United States, freedom of speech was directly supported under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. 

Existing protections over the narrow category of human rights law protecting the physical body from the infliction of physical pain and violence by others on account of differing viewpoints, however, does not apply to leaders of the government systems that exist solely to protect these very rights. Domestically, outside of the international context of the United Nations, governments may choose whether or not to enforce the accepted human rights standards of the Universal Declaration. Both pre-1948 and post-2948, governments have violated, and continue to violate, Articles Three, Five, and Nineteen of the Declaration. Governments commonly violate the rights of their own citizens in perpetuating torture and inflicting pain on noncombatant, unarmed political activists.

As the concept of inalienable human rights has its roots in the Enlightenment and French and American Revolutions, the word “terror”—inflicting violence on the innocent to achieve political means—originated in France during the Revolution of 1789-1794. From 1793 to 1794, during the “Reign of Terror” in France, it is estimated that 17,000 executions took place legally, with an additional 23,000 illegally performed by representatives of the French government.[10] Overall, this time period, often historically grouped to include 1793 to 1795, when an additional 200,000 people were killed, was deemed the first of its kind—one of terror. Historians attribute such a designation because of the epidemic of “state-organized or state-backed visitation of violence on France’s dissident citizenry.”[11] After the French Revolution, the meaning of the term terror and the role of government in violating the bodily rights of its constituency expanded to apply to multiple types of human rights violations.

It is important to recognize the word terror, in addition to the word terrorist, currently a common component of the vernacular used in Great Britain, the United States, and Argentina, initially applied only to violent government-perpetrated acts to intimidate and silence—often quite literally, with death—its constituency. The term terror only recently and later expanded to include attacks on others performed by foreign opponents. While terror is often misused in the current political context, both its original and current meaning include the effect it has on others, outside of those directly injured by the ensuing torturous, violent acts. In the article “Terror, Terrorism, and Terrorists,” Charles Tilly concludes, “In addition to whatever harm [terror] inflicts directly, it sends signals—signals that the target is vulnerable, that the perpetrators exist, and that the perpetrators have the capacity to strike again.” These psychological signals permeating through a society after acts of terror reach three particular groups: the targets of the violence, potential partners or allies of the perpetrators, and, most importantly, members of the public who then are coerced to cooperate with the terrorizers. Inflicting violence on the innocent is successful as a strategy because of its impact on all three of these groups. Tilly summarizes the effectiveness of such physical violence when used by government systems. He states, “terror works…[as] it alters or inhibits the target’s disapproved behavior, fortifies the perpetrators’ standing with potential allies, and moves third parties [often the general public] toward greater cooperation with the perpetrators’ organization and announced program.”[12]

Violating human rights by means of physical violence is not a new phenomenon and, similarly, neither is the forced silence that results from the deployment of terror. Inflicting pain on a single, non-violent individual inevitably signals to a larger group of people that the human rights violations can continue in a longer-term power struggle. Governments continue to play central roles in advocating such violations and, despite the recent focus of the United States government on the terrorist acts of extremists or minorities, it is historically more often the case that governments utilize violence as a tool on their citizens to evoke silence and complacency. The very minorities that are now exhibiting terrorism as a vocal point of their political strategy are, in fact, the same groups that undoubtedly endured violent acts of terror previously.

No act of violence, or inflicting physical pain, is justifiable based on differing opinion or viewpoint—regardless of if the perpetrator acts on behalf of a government entity, another existing entity or out of individual malice. Nonetheless, torture inflicted by a government works especially effectively to instill fear in all third parties observers, usually the common citizenry, as a gradual onslaught of bystander apathy effectively further prevents such citizens from protesting such a disregard for accepted standards of human rights. The experiences of women enduring government-perpetrated torture particularly serve as interesting case studies to trace violations of human rights, given the nature of the resulting intimidation and inaction in domestic civilian populations. While women are often considered delicate, weak members of society in Great Britain, the United States, and Argentina, the political activism of Butler, Paul, and Villaflor was met with particularly strong and unjustifiable aggressive resistance from their respective governments.

The experiences of Josephine Butler, Alice Paul, and Azucena Villaflor in Great Britain, the United States, and Argentina, respectively, over a time period of more than one hundred years exemplify the reoccurring nature and seeming ease of violating human rights. Despite the popular public viewpoint of human nature as a progressive society, a common thread in the historical record remains as similar circumstances repeatedly allow for the occurrence of atrocities increasing in severity. These three cases studies demonstrate that advocacy to encourage direct confrontation with male government leaders inevitably results in repressive, state forces inflicting torture and violence on female noncombatants. Secondly, a suppression of the citizenry and the media, due to the attempt to forcibly silence political, fosters the emergence of an environment unsympathetic and socialized to accept harmful violence.

Until government leaders consistently maintain transparency of information with their constituents through open media sources and are held accountable for the acts of violence and torture they encourage of political activists, violations of human rights against innocent women will continue to escalate in severity.



[1] Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 18.

[2] For more on the theory that reason and human emotion are inextricably intertwined in spurring the constantly evolving accepted standards of human rights, see Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights, pages 26-34.

[3] Declaration of Independence (United States, 1776), Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen (France, 1789), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (ratified by forty eight countries in the United Nations, 1948)

[4] Hunt, Inventing Human Rights, 29.

[5] The first state to grant women universal suffrage was New Zealand in 1893.

[6] Hunt, Inventing Human Rights, Appendix.

[7] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 306.

[8] “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” United Nations, accessed January 28, 2014,

[9] “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

[10] Charles Tilly, “Terror, Terrorism, Terrorists,” Sociological Theory 22.1 (March 2004): 8.

[11] Tilly, “Terror,” 9.

[12] Tilly, “Terror,” 9.