The moral imperative against torture seems obvious. And yet there is public debate about its legitimization. But justify torture, and the floodgates open for horrendous crimes that stain the world’s conscience.
Torture is prohibited by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). Article 2 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture (1984) says that a nation must “take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.” The Convention disavows any exceptions “whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political in stability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” And it says specifically that “An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.”
Torture cannot be used as a means to protect public safety or prevent emergencies, and the prohibition applies to all territories under a country’s effective jurisdiction and protects all people regardless of citizenship. This is absolutely clear and straightforward.
Enter the unholy trio of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld – those directly accountable for the “war on terror” – together with countless corrupt officials, functionaries, psychologists and doctors. In his memoir Decision Points (2010), Bush admitted that he enthusiastically authorized certain detainees to be waterboarded – in plain English tortured. Cheney lost no time in saying that the 2014 Senate report on the CIA’s brutal interrogation policies is “full of crap” and “deeply flawed” – in other words, true. And Rumsfeld (who was obliged to apologise for incidents at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq) actually supervised the military’s planning for extreme interrogation methods outlawed by the army field manual and the Geneva Convention.
In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture, the Editorial Board of the New York Times has backed the call for a special prosecutor to investigate a criminal conspiracy to commit torture and other serious crimes (“Prosecute Torturers and Their Bosses”, 21 December 2014). It noted:
“Starting a criminal investigation is not about payback; it is about ensuring that this never happens again and regaining the moral credibility to rebuke torture by other governments. Because of the Senate’s report, we now know the distance officials in the executive branch went to rationalize, and conceal, the crimes they wanted to commit. The question is whether the nation will stand by and allow the perpetrators of torture to have perpetual immunity for their actions.”
A measure of a nation’s moral stance can be gauged from public response to global events. In the USA, thousands cry out against the injustices taking place in Syria and North Korea and call for the removal of their leaders. Where are the millions prepared to indict US leaders? Writing in Slate (“The Torture Taboo”, 10 December 2014) Jamelle Bouie observed:
“As long as torture is partisan – something for Democrats to oppose and Republicans to accept, if not promote – there’s no guarantee the next president won’t adopt it as policy, pushed by supporters who just see torture as another tool in the intelligence-gathering kit.”
Torture is a crime against every human being. Condoning it in any shape or form debases and corrupts everyone. Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Martin Luther King noted:
“Cowardice asks the question – is it safe? Expediency asks the question – is it politic? Vanity asks the question – is it popular? But conscience asks the question – is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.”