Ethics, Human Rights, and Interrogation

The use of certain interrogation techniques, such as torture, is prohibited by international law and human rights standards. The United Nations Convention against Torture defines torture as any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for purposes such as obtaining information or a confession. The use of other techniques, such as sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, or psychological manipulation, has also been criticised for its potential to violate ethical and human rights standards.

These techniques can cause significant psychological distress and may lead to false confessions or unreliable information.

Defining Interrogation and its Link to Human Rights

Interrogation refers to the questioning of individuals by law enforcement or military officials to extract information.When not properly regulated, interrogation tactics can violate basic human rights and subject people to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

  • Interrogation often involves the isolation and manipulation of subjects to get them to provide information or confessions, whether truthful or not. Certain techniques like sleep deprivation, stress positions, sensory overstimulation, and waterboarding are considered torture and violate international law.

  • All human beings have certain inalienable rights, like the right not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. When interrogations violate these rights, they undermine human dignity and justice.

  • Interrogation policies and techniques should be carefully regulated and monitored to prevent human rights abuses. Things like limiting interrogation periods, prohibiting physical violence, allowing access to legal counsel, and ensuring humane treatment and basic necessities can help achieve a balance between effective interrogation and ethics.

The History of Unethical Interrogation Techniques

Some of the interrogation techniques used throughout history were downright unethical and cruel. Many were developed during World War II and the Cold War era. Physical abuse like beatings, waterboarding (simulated drowning), sleep deprivation, and food deprivation were commonly used to extract information from prisoners. These methods are now widely considered torture and violate basic human rights. Truth serums like sodium thiopental were used to make subjects talkative, hoping they would reveal secrets. However, the information gained was often unreliable.

Why Standard Interrogation Techniques Can Still Be Problematic

It can be understood through the following sub-headings −

Coercion and Deception

Standard interrogation techniques often involve coercion, deception, and manipulation to extract information from subjects. While these techniques may seem effective in the short term, they frequently yield unreliable information and violate human rights. Coercive techniques like sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, and physical abuse are unethical and illegal. They aim to break a subject's will to resist questioning, but often lead subjects to provide false information just to escape the distress.

These techniques can also cause lasting psychological harm. Deceptive techniques, like lying about evidence or making false promises of leniency, are problematic because they can induce subjects to confess to crimes they did not actually commit. Researchers estimate that up to 25% of DNA exoneration cases involve false confessions, frequently obtained through deception.

Build Rapport

Building rapport and trust with a subject during interrogation is a far more effective approach than harsh or coercive techniques. By establishing an empathetic connection and treating the subject with dignity, interrogators are more likely to obtain reliable information. Rapport refers to a relationship of mutual trust and emotional affinity. Interrogators should make an effort to see the subject as a fellow human being, showing interest in their perspective and well-being. Some ways to build rapport include −

  • Active listening − Pay close attention to what the subject is saying and reflect back their words to show you understand. Say something like, "It sounds like you felt afraid and alone."

  • Share details about yourself − While maintaining appropriate boundaries, disclose some personal details to build connections. For example, mention a hobby or interest you share.

  • Use the subject’s name − Referring to the subject by name helps establish a personal connection and rapport. Say, "Thank you for speaking with me today, [name]. I appreciate your time."

  • Express empathy − Say things like, "I can understand why you felt that way." Or, "That must have been a difficult situation." Communicating empathy helps the subject feel heard and understood.

Build Trust

Once rapport is established, work to build trust. Be transparent in your intentions and assure the subject that they will be treated fairly. Some key ways to build trust include −

  • Explain the process − Walk the subject through what to expect during the interrogation and their rights. Let them know you aim for a cooperative discussion

  • Promise fair treatment − Express that you intend to be respectful and cause no harm. Say something like, "You have my word that you will be treated fairly and humanely."

  • Ask open-ended questions − Rather than accusatory questions, ask open-ended questions to get the subject talking in a low-pressure way. For example, ask, "Can you walk me through the events of that day?"

  • Thank the subject − Expressing gratitude for their cooperation and time helps build goodwill and trust in the process. Say, "Thank you again for speaking with me today. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated."

Implementing Ethical Reform and Oversight

To implement ethical reform and oversight in interrogation practises, several steps need to be taken −

  • Provide Adequate Training − Interrogators must receive intensive training on proper interrogation methods and the ethical treatment of detainees. They should learn skills like building rapport, cultural sensitivity, and recognising signs of physical or mental distress.

  • Establish Clear Guidelines − Specific rules and policies should be put in place regarding what interrogation techniques are and are not permitted. These guidelines should align with international human rights laws and ban cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.

  • Establish Consequences − For guidelines and oversight to be effective, there must be penalties for violations. Interrogators who employ illegal or unethical techniques should face disciplinary action, job suspension, or criminal charges.

  • Increase Transparency − There needs to be oversight and review of interrogation practises to prevent abuse. Allowing independent observers, installing cameras, keeping detailed records of interrogations, and reporting to government committees are some options.

Role of the Government

The governing body of the American Psychological Association (APA) and the APA membership spent a remarkable amount of money on the topic of psychologists' participation in interrogations from 2005 to 2010. Reviewing statements and resolutions during this time period demonstrates how the Association's viewpoint has evolved and been expanded upon. The work of the American Psychological Association (APA) was respectful of the significance and complexity of the issue and was meant to offer ethical guidance to its members as well as convey a clear and emphatic message to the general public: The APA, the largest association of psychologists in the world, strongly condemns torture and will not stand for its toleration.

The strategy was on display in San Francisco during the annual convention in 2007, when the APA sponsored a significant amount of programming on the moral implications of psychologists participating in interrogations. The convention programme "Ethics and Interrogations: Confronting the Challenge" had nine two-hour sessions and 44 participants with wildly different opinions on the proper function of psychologists in military interrogations.

The programme was enthusiastically endorsed by the Board of Directors as a means of ensuring that all points of view were given in advance of the Council's discussions and subsequent action. The Board believed that the APA had to engage in the discussion, so it made sure that there was a free-flowing platform where members could express their opinions.


Ethics and human rights should be at the forefront of any interrogation. When we resort to cruel, inhumane tactics, we lose our own humanity in the process. We become the very evil we claim to be fighting against. It's easy to justify "tough" measures when emotions are high and the stakes seem dire. But that is precisely when we need principles and values to guide us most.

Updated on: 30-Oct-2023


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