When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

23 September 2007

The bending of definitions and the turning of blind eyes

In every war, information is a weapon. In a “war against terrorism”, where the adversary wears no uniform and hides among the civilian population, information can matter even more. But does that mean that torture can sometimes be justified to extract information?

The answer in international law is categorical: no. As laid down in treaties such as the Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the ban on torture or any cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is absolute, even in times of war. Along with genocide, torture is the only crime that every state must punish, no matter who commits it or where. Defenders of this blanket prohibition offer arguments that range from the moral (torture degrades and corrupts the society that allows it) to the practical (people will say anything under torture so the information they provide is unreliable anyway).

The September 11th attacks have not driven any rich democracy to reverse itself and make torture legal. But they have encouraged the bending of definitions and the turning of blind eyes. There is a greater readiness among governments that would never practise torture themselves to use information which less squeamish states have obtained—through torture.
Terrorism and civil liberty: Is torture ever justified? (The Economist, 20 September 2007)

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