Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Torture: our peculiar peccadillo?

Pools used for water torture preserved in the museum of the Guardia Nacional in Leon, Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan dictatorship that used these facilities was overthrown by a populist revolution in 1979. The U.S. spent the next ten years working to overthrow that revolution.

As we contemplate the confirmation process for an Attorney General nominee who cannot bring himself to repudiate U.S. use of torture, it is worth taking a step back and attending to how the world sees torture and the United States' place in the international effort to encourage respect for human rights.

We can't pretend the U.S. doesn't have history of practicing torture. As Tom Engelhardt has pointed out

It wasn't, of course, that the U.S. had never imprisoned anyone abroad and certainly not that the U.S. had never used torture abroad. Water-boarding, for instance, was first employed by U.S. soldiers in the Philippine Insurrection at the dawn of the previous century; torture was widely used and taught by CIA and other American operatives in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, and elsewhere. But American presidents didn't then see the bragging rights in such acts...

...the top officials of the Bush administration believed torture to be the royal road to their ultimate dream of unconstrained power...

The United Nations has an official whose job is to wander the world, visiting prisons and detention centers and issuing reports when mistreatment is alleged. He carries the unwieldy title of "Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." The incumbent rapporteur, Manfred Nowak, is an Austrian human rights lawyer. As he explained to Der Spiegel, being the U.N.'s man on the torture beat is a pretty ghastly job.

in the Nigerian city of Lagos, where the United Nations special rapporteur on torture and his team carried out a surprise inspection of a police station that had given itself the rather lofty title of a detention center. "I've never seen anything like it," Nowak says. "Between 100 and 120 severely tortured people crowded closely together. Three women among them, and children too -- the oldest aged 14. Men with untreated gunshot wounds and limbs that were literally rotting -- a common torture method in Nigeria."

No one was expecting him when he showed up at the police headquarters in Amman on the last day of his visit to Jordan. He ordered a secret cell to be opened. Behind the door lay a prisoner "in a terrible condition." He had been suspended above the ground by his wrists, which had been tied behind his back -- a classic torture method dating back to the Middle Ages. "He could no longer stand, walk or anything," Nowak says. "In these types of cases, emotional distance is impossible. You're fully involved." ...

But, as a European, he is most distressed by the behavior of the countries he identifies with:

Torture is still "considered a peccadillo," he says, adding that this is now the case "even in developed countries." ...

Ever since former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld authorized the use of so-called "enhanced interrogation" techniques in Abu Ghraib, "the United States has lost its moral leadership and authority," Nowak believes. "Today, when the Bush administration criticizes other countries for their human rights abuses, no one takes them seriously anymore."

But Europe has not succeeded in taking the place of the United States as the "driving force when it comes to human rights," the lawyer says. On the contrary, he believes the European Union is "seriously tarnished." European governments' cooperation with the CIA in the war on terror and their denial of secret detainee renditions and prison camps has weakened the EU, according to Nowak.

On occasion, Nowak has been even more pointed in his criticism of the United State's adoption of torture. This week he released his findings that torture is routine and widespread in Sri Lanka -- and emphasized how U.S. practices lend support to torture regimes.

The United States's willingness to resort to harsh interrogation techniques in its so-called war on terror undermined human rights and the international ban on torture, a United Nations spokesman says. ...

"I am very concerned about the undermining of the absolute prohibition of torture by interrogation methods themselves in Abu Grahib, in Guantanamo Bay and others, but also by rendition and the whole CIA secret places of detention. All that is really undermining the international rule of law in general and human rights but also the prohibition of torture," said Mr Nowak.

"(Other countries) say why are you criticising us if the US, the most democratic country with the oldest history of human rights, if they are torturing you should first go there. It has a negative effect because the US is a very powerful and important country and many other countries take the US as a model."

Sydney [Australia] Morning Herald
October 30, 2007

I'm afraid the answer to the question Nowak can't answer is that U.S. adoption of torture signals that it should no longer claim to be "democratic country."

We can hold all the elections we want, but if the people can't reign in the torturers -- if the people will not or can not lay down a moral and legal line that defines torture as intrinsically unconscionable, criminal -- our "democratic" model is definitively useless and dead.

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