WASHINGTON - As images of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners spread to television sets around the globe, human rights organizations are increasingly concerned that a century of building steady support for international treaties banning torture could be irreparably damaged.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has pushed for a worldwide consensus on a number of treaties mandating the humane treatment of prisoners. In doing so, it has essentially held itself up as an international model of behavior.
Now, not only is the United States open to accusations of hypocrisy, but such groups as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch fear that some countries will see the behavior depicted in the photos as a "green light" to ignore advances made in years of hard-fought reform.
"Torture cuts across all regions and countries," says Alistair Hodgett, spokesman for Amnesty International. "But ever since these allegations emerged, they have sent a dangerous ripple effect and a signal to places like Cairo [Egypt] and Riyadh [Saudi Arabia] that the United States isn't concerned. And the gloves will come off."
The pictures being broadcast show American soldiers humiliating Iraqis by forcing them to simulate sex acts or making them believe they would be electrocuted. U.S. soldiers are also being accused of widespread cruelty and torture at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, where the photos were taken.
The still-classified report written by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba details the results of an Army investigation into conditions at the prison that found "egregious acts and grave breaches of international law."
Torture and prisoner abuse have been banned since the 1929 Geneva Conventions among world leaders hoping to avoid a repeat of the widespread brutality of World War I. But it wasn't until 1949 that the treaty was amended to give more specific rights to POWs and captives.
In 1987, the international community agreed to the Convention Against Torture, which for the first time defined torture and required states to take measures to prevent it.
Yet more than two-thirds of the countries of the world surveyed by Amnesty International this year were found to condone some forms of torture, while almost half showed evidence of participating in "pervasive or systemic" torture.
Most human rights officials said this week that the pictures and the report taken together send a message to the world that the United States is little better.
In addition to the outright violations such as beating and, in two instances, possibly killing prisoners, the report found U.S. officials failed to abide by even the smallest Geneva Conventions guidelines, such as providing both prisoners and their U.S. captors copies of the conventions, which outline prisoners' rights.
Much of the United States' behavior toward the handling of detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Afghanistan and other prisons for suspected terrorists in unknown locations is expected to come under renewed scrutiny in light of the photographs.
The United States has maintained for almost 2 1/2 years, since taking prisoners during the war in Afghanistan, that it does not participate in torture or prisoner abuse.
At the same time, it has barred human rights officials from U.S.-run facilities operating in conjunction with the war on terror. Such groups routinely get access to hundreds of prisons around the world and have in recent years taken on the role of impartial onlooker, writing reports that are widely respected as fair.
"Maybe Abu Ghraib is an aberration," said Joe Stork, Washington director for the Middle East Division of Human Rights Watch, "but maybe it isn't. There isn't any way to know."
Much of the new scrutiny will likely center on U.S. techniques of interrogation in the gray area of "stress and duress." Interrogators use psychological games, sleep deprivation, sensory changes such as making prisoners listen to "white noise" for hours or making them sit for long periods in uncomfortable positions in overly air-conditioned rooms.
Stork and others say these techniques can easily turn into torture when they continue for days or when the psychological games involve leading prisoners to believe they will be executed or tortured.
The United States has kept its interrogation techniques classified, but officials justify their methods by asserting that interrogators are saving lives with the information they elicit.
American soldiers were responsible for brutal examples of torture during the Vietnam War, when soldiers tried to beat information out of the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong also tortured and abused Americans.
During the Korean War, the North Koreans moved beyond inflicting pain to gain information, attempting to brainwash captives through a Chinese practice of "thought reform." Americans at home saw broadcasts of U.S. prisoners firmly swearing allegiance to communism.
Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a visiting professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and an expert on wartime behavior, studied many of the U.S. prisoners released from North Korea and later the CIA's unsuccessful efforts during the Cold War to use such drugs as LSD to make prisoners or spies talk.
Soldiers who are normally good people can be easily socialized in a wartime setting to torture or humiliate prisoners if it appears to them that such behavior is the norm and is sanctioned by a higher authority.
"You can get information by torturing people, treating them badly or humiliating them," Lifton said, "but in general it does more to break people down than help obtain information. Torture destroys people."
It's that kind of devastating human toll that will likely be seared into the minds of television watchers worldwide this week.
"Torture is such a core issue in these international treaties," said Stork of Human Rights Watch. Until now, "the United States has always been able to set itself up as a beacon for others to follow."
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