To Alexandre Hay, the grandfatherly former banker who two years ago became president of the all-Swiss International Committee of the Red Cross, it came as "a certain shock" to discover "that the world is so cruel, that torture in the 20th century is utilized as a permanent institution in so many places."

He was in a learning situation. The ICRC not only champions the body of international humanitarian law (the Geneva conventions) protecting the human person in armed conflicts; with its several hundred staff members, it also tends to individual cases. It quietly visits hundreds or more imprisoned torture victims a year. That has given hay unusual standing to ponder what he calls "the idea of torture" - an idea that the right-thinking Swiss burgher in all of us often instinctively shies away from contemplating.

In the past, he suggests, torture occurred from time to time in certain places. In its contemporary postwar form, it was begun in Algeria in the 1950s by the French. That France, an advanced country, one that itself had suffered similar cruelties as recently as World War II, could practice torture gave it a "legitimacy" that eased its spread elsewhere.

It did spread. The Portuguese took it over in their African colonies, as the French had used it in their African colony. It moved to Latin America, where it was used not against national liberation movements but against insurgencies. It came into regular use by the police of various countries. It became in some places, says Hay, shaking his head, "a part of normal police procedure . . . even before you are questioned."

The type of conflict made a difference, in Hay's view. "In classical wars, armies were fighting against a soldiers, and they had nothing against him personally except that he was a soldier of a foreign country. Conflicts between states are more abstract. But now the type of conflict is different, of a civilian character, often people from the same country, class against class. And extraordinary hate is possible among people just because their relations are so personal. It is the type of internal opposition that has brought on this natural disease, a cancer."

One could add that this is a "good" time for torture. In developed as in developing countries, there are many live and ripening internal struggles of the sort that breed the use of torture by the state and the use of its frequent twin, terror, by opponents of the state.

States, of course, have the incentive if not always the resources to care for the victims of terror. The victims of torture, Hay points out, as political prisoners, are in the hands of an enemy just as foreign prisoners of war are in the hands of an enemy. It is for those victims that the ICRC does what it can - "usually in emergency situations, in states of siege."

Governments so minded, such as the United States at the moment, can bring a range of official pressures to bear to protest torture. Amnesty International uses facts to mobilize public opinion against torture. In a separate but complementary approach, the ICRC visits prisoners. It will visit only if there are no witnesses, so that the prisoner can speak freely, and only if it is ensured the right to make another visit, so that the prisoner will not be endangered for what he may say during the first. In return, the ICRC pledges to report to the local government, and only to the local government.

Governments permit the visits, explains Hay, so that the higher people, who are aware of international opinion and who may be trying to make improvements, can learn what is actually going on in their prisons: 'That is our best argument to them." Second, though governments insist that it's an internal affair, "just for them to say they have allowed ICRC visits is for them something."

I found Hay credibly modest about the effect the ICRC can have through its evangelizing for humanitarian law and its constant casework. It has no access, for instance, in Cambodia or in socialist countries. Though the ICRC is currently promoting a new convention, for international treaty, by which states would accept an obligation not to employ torture, Hay concedes that "sometimes you think, why should we go on making conventions?"

He says nonetheless: "We hope we are considered a moral force. We work for conventions and in advance of conventions. We wish never to divorce action from thinking. We give a certain help."