Sunday, June 14, 2009

Ending torture: Manfred Nowak

The Kursbuch edition 163/Mar 2006 from which I've been quoting has two interviews with specialists on torture. One is with Manfred Nowak, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, who had just completed a report on the Guantanamo station of the Bush Gulag.

One of the important points Nowak makes is that the ban on torture in international law is a more absolute ban than that on killing someone. He uses the example of a bank robber who has taken hostages inside a bank and a police sharpshooter is able to kill him in order to free the hostages as an example. The use of torture, however, is not allowable. The Torture Convention of 1984, which was ratified by the US Senate and is therefore equal in legal force to the Constitution itself, specifically bans the use of torture in emergency situations liked the fabled "ticking time bomb" case.

And that's pretty much the response he gives to the question about the ticking-time-bomb scenario, one based on the law: torture is not allowed. He also notes that the ticking-time-bomb nonsense is based on the notion of a "Robin Hood Policeman", who does not exist in reality. He also rejects the notion that present-day terrorism is such a distinct phenemenon that a loosening of the anti-torture laws is required. "Torture", he replies, "is and remains the most sever and inhuman violation of human rights." (My translation from the German) He observes that the ideology that says terrorists can be tortured reduces them to inhuman status, to being without human rights.


He also warns that the attempt to specify special circumstances and rules by which torture could be allowed - theoretically the basis of the Cheney-Bush torture program - is doomed to failure. Laws clearly banning torture set clear rules. Once the law starts blurring the boundaries between torture and other methods of interrogation, the torturers are certain to find themselves going beyond the vaguely-set limits, because every victim reacts differently. The notion also threatens to remove the element of shame which has come to attach to the practice of torture worldwide, so that even countries that clearly practice it feel compelled to deny publicly they are doing so. As, of course, was the case for the US in the Cheney-Bush years.

And basing his comment on recent experience from the former East Bloc states, Nowak warns, "The formal step from a dictatorship to the rule of law can go very quickly. But if there was ever a culture of torture, then it is difficult to get rid of it." (My translation from the German)

And I would say we are seeing that latter situation play out right now in the United States. The Cheney-Bush administration did set up a torture culture in which there were torture specialists, doctors who assisted in the torture, attorneys who wrote Mob-style legal opinions alibing torture, responsible government officials who ordered torture, a Republican Party that passionately supported the torture program, and a national press that quickly came to accept torture as a legitimate policy option. Now that President Obama is trying to unwind the torture culture, he is encountering difficulties from all sides, not least because he hoped to find an easy way to undo it, i.e., without actually enforcing the laws against the torture perpetrators of the previous administration.

See also an interview with Nowak published in English, What to do about torture? Manfred Nowak interviewed by Kanishk Tharoor Open Democracy 01/15/07. In that interview, he says:

It is counterproductive to say that human rights should not be applied since human rights are a very flexible system. Many human rights can and should be restricted in the face of serious challenges; think of freedom of assembly, privacy, and so forth. People are willing to accept necessary infringements on their right to privacy, since such surveillance is proportional to the threat.

But the prohibition of torture is an "absolute right", which means that there is no proportionality to be applied. A little bit of torture doesn't make us safer, it's the opposite. As soon as you undermine the prohibition of torture, and you start in the "ticking bomb scenario" to apply torture, it very quickly spreads and creates new terrorism. We now have more terrorists since we are fighting terrorism by violating our own standards and the international rule of law.
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