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The application of torture - even on terrorists - cannot be morally justified

By Chris Sidoti - posted Friday, 28 March 2003

The events of 11 September 2001 were traumatic enough. But they also unleashed fundamental changes in the collective psyche of the United States that may yet prove far more traumatic than the original crimes themselves - more deaths, more suffering and greater harm to law and logic. The new attitude towards torture is an example.

International human rights law prohibits torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. There are no clear boundaries between what is acceptable and what is prohibited. Some kinds of treatment are so extreme as to be obviously and universally unacceptable. Other actions might be acceptable in some contexts but not in others. For example, interrogation of an adult can be more rigorous than interrogation of a child. It is necessary to look at the impact of the actions on the individual.

Torture has been regarded as one of the most serious human rights violations. The right not to be tortured is one of a small number of human rights that can never be qualified or restricted in any way. While many rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, can be qualified in times of national emergency, the right not to be tortured cannot. While other rights, such as the right to education and the right to work, are subject to the economic resources of a nation, the right not to be tortured is not. Torture is never acceptable.


Yet since the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 there have been arguments that torture, or at least some forms of torture, should be acceptable. There is strong evidence that it is being practised either by US personnel or on their behalf. A number of past and present CIA agents have said that US personnel torture suspects and possible informants. US officials have admitted that al Qa'ida suspects are handed over to the intelligence services of countries known to torture along with a list of questions to which the Americans want answers. It takes little imagination to see what this means.

Some government officials and intelligence agents argue that torture is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks and for that reason it is justified. They say that, if a person has information about an impending terrorist attack, there's nothing wrong with a little torture to get him or her to disclose it. Even a noted human rights academic has contributed to the cause. He argues that torture occurs whether we like it or not and so we should be seeking to regulate the use of torture and to ensure the accountability of those who authorise it rather than seeking to eliminate it. He has proposed that the US President be given legal authority to authorise the use of "low level torture".

Have they got a point? No.

Torture is outlawed for two reasons. First and most importantly, it is wrong in principle. It denies the human dignity of the victim and it demeans the perpetrator and thereby it diminishes us all. All human beings are entitled to the respect due to us by virtue of our common humanity. We are equal in dignity and rights and are entitled to have those rights respected and protected. It is as simple as that. "Low level torture in limited circumstances with high level authority" might sound innocuous enough to some people but it starts us on the slippery slope of tolerating and then approving human rights violations. Our legal and political systems and our moral standards become no better than those of the terrorists we abhor. We have the moral high ground in opposing terrorism. We cannot afford to lose it.

Second, and far less importantly, torture is also wrong as a practical issue. Most people involved in criminal justice - judges, police, prosecutors and defence lawyers - know that information obtained under duress is inherently unreliable. A person will say anything under torture with no regard for its truthfulness or accuracy. I know I would. More orthodox interrogation techniques, including persuasion, moral pressure and rigorous questioning, are far more likely to produce useful information than crude violence. If we are truly interested in obtaining good information to prevent terrorism, then we won't torture.

The war against terrorism is now been complemented by the war against Iraq. As the bombs fall, the missiles strike and the armies invade, our capacity to monitor what is happening on the ground becomes very limited. All the more reason then for rules that are clear, that are known to those charged with making war and that are strictly enforced by the military chain of command. The moral and legal equivocation by US officials about torture makes life hard for its own soldiers. They are the ones who could be held accountable for their actions before national and international criminal courts.


So let's make it crystal clear now. Torture is illegal anywhere, any time, under any circumstances.

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This article was first published in The Courier-Mail on 24 March 2003.

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About the Author

Chris Sidoti is National Spokesperson for the Human Rights Council of Australia and Visiting Professor at the University of Western Sydney and Griffith University.

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