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UNITED STATES: LEGITIMISING TORTURE

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JOHANNESBURG, Mar 18 2008 (IPS) - In a frightening turn, torture has made its way back into the public debate, with the governments that supposedly advocate democracy and freedom coming to its defence, writes Kumi Naidoo, former Secretary General of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation. In this article, the author writes that President Bush recently all but acknowledged the use of torture against suspected terrorists and essentially condoned its practice by US officials when he vetoed a bill outlawing torture. This decision comes in the wake of recent testimony by CIA director Michael Hayden that the agency has used waterboarding techniques on detainees. For the US to publicly admit and condone torture undermines the efficacy of the Convention Against Torture, which the US ratified in 1984, and undermines the positive work of many American activists and progressive politicians who have advocated for political freedom and good treatment of detainees. The message this approach sends is clear: If you can justify it, torture is okay (look, even the Americans do it!).

US President George Bush recently all but acknowledged the use of torture against suspected terrorists and essentially condoned its practice by US officials when he vetoed a bill outlawing torture.

The 2008 Intelligence Authorisation Act would have applied the US Army Field Manual on interrogations to all government agencies, including the CIA. The Manual, which currently applies only to the Department of Defense, prohibits specific acts of torture and abuse, including waterboarding (simulated drowning), and authorises an array of legitimate interrogation methods.

This decision comes in the wake of recent testimony by CIA director Michael Hayden that the agency has used waterboarding techniques on detainees, ongoing allegations of the torture of Guantanamo Bay prisoners, and the release of shocking pictures of abuse of detainees by American soldiers in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2004.

The US ratified the 1984 Convention Against Torture on 18 April, 1988, becoming the 63rd nation to do so. The Convention specifically outlawed torture, which it defined as ”any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” for punishment or to extract information or ”when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

The US president at the time, Ronald Reagan, stated, ”By giving its advice and consent to ratification of this Convention, the Senate of the United States will demonstrate unequivocally our desire to bring an end to the abhorrent practice of torture.”

Unfortunately, at present the US (and many other signatories of the Convention) appears to be justifying torture in the context of the war on terrorism. Rather than ensuring that the war on terror protects basic human rights – such as freedom from torture – it is in fact allowing it to legitimise such practices.

In South Africa, during apartheid, the notion of terrorism was used as an instrument of widespread and systemic human rights violations by the regime. But even the apartheid state, as brutal as it was, publicly denied its use, aware that publicising its use of cruel interrogation methods would place it under an even hotter international spotlight.

For a democratic state, notwithstanding some of its own democratic deficits and with its global standing seriously waning, to publicly admit and condone torture, undermines the efficacy of the Convention Against Torture and the positive work of many American activists and progressive politicians who have advocated for political freedom and good treatment of detainees. The message this approach sends is clear: If you can justify it, torture is okay (look, even the Americans do it!). The sometimes scathing US State Department Reports which highlight the abuse of detainees in numerous countries will now seem hollow and insincere.

Even more worrying is that evidence obtained through official cruelty is now being used in military commission trials at Guantanamo Bay. In allowing this, the US administration is undermining its own judicial system and ensuring that many who have been accused under terrorism laws receive patently unfair trials. As Human Rights First pointed out in its recent report, which documents the use of such evidence, research has consistently shown that suspects who are tortured often provide false or misleading information merely to stop the abuse or because their mental or physical functions have been impaired.

The connection between torture and false or misleading information was recently demonstrated in the Hollywood film Rendition, which highlights yet another questionable practice of the US government: extraordinary rendition, a system of torture by proxy by which suspects are transferred to countries known to employ harsh interrogation techniques.

We at CIVICUS join civil society organisations throughout the US who have expressed disbelief and outrage with President Bush’s decision to veto the bill. An appeal published by Common Dreams, an alternative news wire, asked their supporters to stand up and exclaim ”That’s not my America. My America Doesn’t Torture!”. As an international organisation, we join this appeal in stating that America is not only letting down its citizens, but those in states whose governments are influenced by American policies and who have long sought legitimacy for their own brutal practices.

The real test of democracy is not refraining from human rights abuses when all is well but rather upholding its values in the face of internal and external threats. Undermining certain fundamental tenets of democracy in the name of the fight against terrorism only impoverishes the idea of democracy, the practice of human rights and ultimately undercuts the fight against terrorism. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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