Costa ’17: Anthropologists and the fight against torture

The Abu Ghraib detention facility, located near Baghdad, Iraq, served as a United States prison for captured Iraqis from 2003-2006, during the Iraq War. The 3,800-detainee prison was the site of numerous human rights abuses during its time of operation; some of which were photographed and became public. The horrifying, outrageous acts of torture committed by US soldiers toward detainees were captured through iconic photographs, which show prisoners, often naked, being tortured and forced to perform a number of humiliating acts. The prison has since been taken over by the Iraqi government—but the memory of the human rights abuses is still a haunting example of a system of discipline gone wrong. Abu Ghraib has been compared to instances of abuse during the Vietnam War and at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp, but its public nature, due to the circulation of photographs, has made the case of the Iraqi prison unique.

In the case of Abu Ghraib, anthropologists have established a unique position as cultural liaisons to aid those in need. At its annual meeting in 2006, the American Anthropological Association called for, “A complete end to all U.S. military operations in Iraq and full U.S compliance with the United Nations Convention against Torture.” Ethical questions also emerged at the meeting—when the possibility emerged that anthropological tactics were used to contribute to the torture at Abu Ghraib. However, the Association condemned both the US occupation of Iraq and torture practices, as well as the use of anthropological work in the aid of these practices.

Many times, anthropologists get more directly involved in situations regarding human rights, as in the case of the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center. Located in southeastern Cuba, Guantánamo is a US detention center that now primarily holds detainees in the “war on terror.” Tactics used against prisoners, including solitary confinement and extremes in temperature, have called into question the legitimacy of its disciplinary methods. Cases of torture, and thus cases of human rights violations, have occurred at the prison. This is an ongoing problem, and anthropologists have offered tangible networks of support in addition to writing statements of condemnation.

In the case of the Abu Ghraib Detention Center and the ongoing issue of Guantánamo, anthropologists can play a deciding role in the fight against torture in detention facilities. Through analytical articles exploring solutions for the future and direct involvement with human rights organizations, anthropologists can not only study, but also combat the struggle against human rights abuse. By exploring the ethics of prison situations, anthropologists demonstrate that prisons and prisoners of war should not be equated with torture. Although it is too late for the victims of Abu Ghraib, there is still hope that Guantánamo will halt its unfair treatment of prisoners. With the help of anthropologists, organizations, and ordinary people, this goal will hopefully soon be achieved.