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Torturing the Qaida suspects

would be a setback for civilisation




November 7, 2001

LONDON - Primitive man, like other animals, followed his instincts and killed his enemy as swiftly as the job could be done. Archaeologists who have dug up prehistoric skeletons have found no evidence of torture. Even human sacrifices were made without prolonged suffering. Torture, the systematized use of violence to inflict the maximum amount of pain in order to extract information, to break resistance or simply to intimidate, is a product of civilization. But to reintroduce it now would be one of the greatest setbacks for civilisation imaginable.

Before the American authorities rush into it with the righteousness that comes from a conviction that they might be extracting information that could forestall a terrorist nuclear attack on Manhattan they would do well to ponder the course the debate on torture has taken over the three and a half millennia of Western civilization. It has been abolished for good reason.

Both the Greek and Roman civilizations left detailed records of the use of torture. Both of them prohibited torture for a citizen, but allowed it for outsiders. In ancient Athens a slave's testimony was not considered reliable unless he had been tortured. Rome tortured the early Christians.

But the Church, repelled by this torture of Christians, used its growing influence to abolish torture throughout Europe. Until the time of Pope Innocent IV in the thirteenth century it was practically unknown in the Western world.

The Inquisition brought it back. Heretics were forced to undergo a very systematic use of torture. A magistrate sat by carefully logging the instruments used, the length of the torture and the confessions extracted.

Nevertheless, the undercurrent of revulsion remained and by the seventeenth century the use of torture began to die out. In 1640 it was abolished in England by law, although the torture of suspected "witches" continued for some time. After the 1789 revolution, France made the use of torture a capital offence. Most German states and Russia abolished it early in the nineteenth century. Moreover, the European powers did much to dampen down its use in the many parts of the world where they had empires.

In the twentieth century torture returned with a vengeance, reaching proportions that dwarfed even the darkest Middle Ages. Although it was the Nazis who re-introduced the use of large-scale torture, it had been used sporadically in the civil war that followed the Russian revolution and it was Mussolini's fascists that were the first government in the twentieth century to make torture an official policy of state. The black shirts invented their own particular technique- pumping a prisoner full of castor oil to "purge him of the will to exist".

Spain under Franco continuing using torture right through into the 1970s and even democratic Spain has had its scandals, with the use of torture being unearthed against Basque dissidents. In Britain in the early 1970s torture was used against IRA detainees. During a London court hearing in 1999 on whether General Augusto Pinochet, the former strong man of Chile, could be extradited to Spain to stand trial for the use of torture, his lawyer argued in his defence that, "there's torture everywhere, including in Britain and Northern Ireland".

In 1984, after many years of debate, the UN finally approved a legally binding treaty against torture. The list of those who fought for it in these years included the expected- Scandinavian governments and Holland- and the quite unexpected- the U.S. administration of Ronald Reagan. A majority of the world's countries had decided that whatever the supposed value of torture in extremis, it was in practice so cruel, so lacking in positive results (information obtained by torture is rarely valuable), and so degrading of the user that it was impossible to justify. As the arrest of Pinochet showed, it is a UN convention with teeth and there are a growing number of instances of other well-known torturers lying low in countries where they believe they can escape the long arm of persecution- the convention allows states to prosecute a suspected torturer even if the crime were committed in another country. Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former Ethiopian dictator wanted in his own country for crimes of torture flew from his refuge in Zimbabwe to safer North Korea. Fear of arrest forced the former Indonesian dictator General Suharto to cancel the trips he makes annually to Germany for medical treatment.

If the U.S. wanted to use torture it would have to withdraw from a UN convention it has solemnly ratified- no easy legal task- and live with the opprobrium of having undermined what is regarded all over the world as a serious and important step forward in mankind's quest to build a consensus on what are crimes against humanity and on how they should be punished. Its "torturers" would face the possibility of arrest should they ever travel abroad. The U.S. has plenty of other ways of garnering the information it so earnestly requires. Torture would provide no short cut to the truth and it would set back the cause of civilisation a long way.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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