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In defence of torture ?



Jonathan Power

May 12, 2004

LONDON - Who in extremis could put his hand on his heart and say he would not sanction torture if he knew the detainee possessed information that could save thousand of lives? This has been the central conundrum of the long debate on the morality of torture.

In 1979, nearly two decades after the revelations of torture during the war of Algerian independence against colonial France, the commanding general of the French forces during the Battle of Algiers, Jacques Massu, published his memoirs defending its policy. The man who in his family life tried to make amends by adopting two Algerian orphans made the argument that torturers may be responsible servants of the state in times of extreme crisis.

Three years ago another top French general, Paul Aussaresses, went public with his memoirs. "The first time I tortured someone", he wrote, "it was useless: the fellow died without saying a thing. I had no regrets over his death. If I had any regrets it was because he did not talk." But Massu, then in his nineties, commented that he had become convinced that torture is "not indispensable in time of war, we should have found another way- but how?"

That is indeed the question and society at large prefers to skirt around it. We have labeled it a sin, but in extraordinary situations we tolerate it. When in 1998 the Chilean former head of state General Augusto Pinochet was detained in London and accused of torture his lawyer argued quite correctly, "there is torture everywhere, including in Britain and Northern Ireland."

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How else to explain the eerie silence that greeted the detailed revelations made in the Washington Post sixteen months ago? With no shortage of testimonials, the reports revealed that U.S. intelligence agents had been torturing terrorist suspects in Bagram air base outside Kabul and in Diego Garcia, a U.S. base beyond the reach of American courts. Other suspects were handed over to the intelligence services of Jordon, Egypt and Morocco which did the job U.S. officials were perhaps nervous about doing.

It appeared to the reporters that wrote the story that a number of officials directly involved wanted the subject aired. Aware of the moral and legal ambiguities involved they wanted to know what public opinion considered were the limits. They got only an indirect answer. Most of the rest of the media gave the story only cursory attention, Congress ignored it and the Administration brushed it off.

Timing, of course, is everything. When the U.S. was doing well in Afghanistan and hopes were high it would repeat its success in Iraq very few wanted to quibble about such things. But with the U.S. on the psychological run, if not yet on a military one, together with the fact that the evidence is now photographic, the urge to jump on the moral high horse is irresistible. But all this does is to point up the ambiguities of human nature even more starkly.

And these particular ambiguities go back a long time. Rome tortured the early Christians and the Church, repelled by what had happened, for a thousand years after used its influence to ensure that torture was abolished in Europe. But then under pressure at the time of the Inquisition it brought it back. Then in the seventeenth century torture started to die out again. In 1640 it was abolished in England- except for "witches". In France and Italy Voltaire and Beccaria wrote passionately against it and after the revolution of 1789 it was made a capital offence.

Torture returned with vengeance during the twentieth century- in Stalin's Soviet Union, in Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain- and always, if not continuously, in British-ruled Ireland.

In 1972 a young Amnesty International opened a campaign for a UN Anti-Torture Convention. In 1981 it won the support of Sweden, the first country to take up the cause. In 1984 the UN finally approved a legally binding treaty against torture. Quite soon after the treaty was ratified by most members of the UN, including by the U.S. of Ronald Reagan and the Britain of Margaret Thatcher. Once again the tide had appeared to turn against torture. In 1999, in the House of Lords, for the first time anywhere a high court decided that sovereign immunity must not become sovereign impunity and that under the Convention  Pinochet could be prosecuted.

Yet still, says Amnesty, torture continues to be practiced by most countries. Nevertheless, the evidence is that rarely does torture successfully elicit the truth- at best only part of it. More often it is used as a tool of oppression, to intimidate and humiliate. It certainly corrupts the souls of the torturers, as many have later testified. And probably it deeply corrupts the countries who tolerate it. What cannot be doubted it compromises their reputation, undermines their credibility and weakens their ability to win the changes they want. For America and Britain this time round the use of torture clearly seems to have irredeemably lost them the battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.



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


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


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40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

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