Jump to page content


last updated Jan 12, 2009

Waterboarding is an interrogation technique in which the victim is made to feel as if he or she is drowning applied to extract information or confession from the victim. This is achieved by placing the victim on an inclined board with feet elevated above the head. The victim’s face is then covered with a piece of cloth or cellophane and water is poured onto the face. The cloth limits or completely halts the flow of air into the victim’s lungs causing them to collapse and the victim to gag. While water does not actually enter the lungs, due to the position of the body, it does enter all other cavities of the head, thereby causing the sensation of drowning.

Apart from the sensation of drowning, waterboarding has other serious effects such as asphyxiation and hyponatremia. Asphyxiation or lack of oxygen can cause the victim to loose consciousness and can ultimately lead to brain damage. Death can occur due to hyponatremia, an imbalance of salts in the blood caused by swallowing too much water. Other immediate effects include extreme stress reactions that manifest through elevated heart rate and gasping for breath, while long term effects include depression, panic attacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although waterboarding leaves no physical marks on its victim, the possible side effects require that the technique is carried out by experts following specific instructions. Often these proceedings are supervised by a doctor to prevent accidental death.

Waterboarding was first recorded in the 14th century and has been widely used as an interrogation technique since then. This form of torture has been practiced by, but not limited to, the Japanese during WWII, the French during the Algerian War, U.S. troops in the Philippines, the Khmer Rogue in Cambodia, the British in occupied Palestine in the 1930’s, and under the dictatorships of Argentina and Chile in the 1970’s. Waterboarding was also one of six approved ´enhanced interrogation techniques’ in America’s War on Terror during the Bush administration until President Obama banned these ´techniques’.

The United States repeatedly claimed that waterboarding did not fulfill the criteria of torture. The definition of torture in Article 1 of the Convention against Torture (CAT) includes “[…] any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person […]”. Waterboarding is a form of mock execution as it creates the uncontrollable physiological sensation to be drowning. The threat of imminent death clearly leads to severe mental suffering. Waterboarding is therefore clearly prohibited by the CAT. This was confirmed by the Committee Against Torture in its concluding observations to the US State Report in 20061. Beyond the definition of torture in the CAT, waterboarding also causes “prolonged mental harm” required by the definition of torture in the US legislation since the victim suffers of the above-mentioned long term effects such as PTSD.

1CAT/C/USA/CO/2 Concluding Observations (2006)
Sources: http://uscode.house.gov; http://www.nytimes.com/ref/international/24MEMO-GUIDE.html; http://www.thetorturereport.org/; http://science.howstuffworks.com/water-boarding.htm; http://waterboarding.org/info