Considering the right to Freedom from Torture

Marking UN International Day in support of Victims of Torture P&J blogger Kristee Boyd considers the uncomfortable question torture and how we might be complicit:

Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom.  – William Pitt the Younger


This week, the United Nations observed the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, June 26. In terms of international law, the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is utterly unacceptable in any capacity, regardless of circumstances. And yet hundreds of thousands of people around the world continue to experience various forms of torture on a daily basis. Women report being raped and brutalised by prison interrogators. Prisoners are held indefinitely without charge in inhuman conditions, subjected to a range of cruel penalties by their captors. Speaking one’s truth is, at times, met with the harshest of consequences. It is difficult not to feel emotional when we hear stories of helpless captives, enduring the unthinkable. And yet, this morning I stumbled across this powerful quote from torture survivor George Alexandros Mangakis:

I’ve seen the torturer’s face at close quarters. It was in a worse condition than my own bleeding, livid face… It is not an easy thing to torture people. It requires inner participation. The men who humiliate you must first humiliate the notion of humanity within themselves. I was simply a man who moaned because he was in great pain….I prefer that. At this moment I am deprived of the joy of seeing children going to school or playing in the park. Whereas they have to look their own children in the face.

Mangakis’s quote prompts the question: What societal elements or experiences might induce a person to “humiliate” his/her own basic notion of humanity? As we know, some of the most extreme, large scale human rights violations have been made possible by the cooperation of ordinary citizens, people like you and me (for example, read Patrick Henry’s article on the Holocaust). In the case of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, young US soldiers became progressively more sadistic in carrying out their orders to prepare Iraqi prisoners, many of whom were innocent bystanders, for interrogation (Standard Operating Procedure provides an excellent account of these events). The now-famous photos at Abu Ghraib depict smiling US soldiers posing with inmates whom they were regularly beating, humiliating and sexually assaulting. How do we dehumanise a fellow human being to the extent that we believe torture to be justifiable? As Raphael Behr states, research suggests that “A whole society can have its ethical universe reconfigured with ease.”

We hope that we would never reach a point when we would consider torture to be justified. However, since 911, counter-terrorism narratives and the notion of ‘threats to national security’ have required an ‘other,’ a division between ‘them’ and ‘us.’ Such narratives made it easy for the majority of UK citizens to advocate the deportation of Muslim Cleric Abu Qatada (aka Omar Othman) to Jordan regardless of whether or not a fair trial could be guaranteed. Abu Qatada, a Palestinian-Jordanian preacher, writer and scholar, was granted refugee status in the UK in 1994, due to the fact that he had endured religious persecution and torture while living in Jordan. However, in 1999 and 2000 Qatada was convicted in his absence of two counts of terrorism in Jordan. The only concrete evidence in both court cases was the confessions of his co-defendants. The same co-defendants later insisted that they had been tortured until they ‘confessed’ and these claims were supported by medical evidence. Despite Qatada’s convictions in Jordan, the Jordanian government did not seek his extradition and he was not arrested in the UK.

However, after the events of 9/11 and the subsequent changes to Britain’s anti-terror laws, Qatada was arrested without charge and stripped of his refugee status based on the assumption that he was considered to be a threat to national security. At that point, Qatada was vilified in the mainstream media, which supported the British government’s repeated attempts to have him deported to Jordan. Various courts, including the European Court of Human Rights, denied the UK government the right to deport Qatada to Jordan, where evidence obtained using torture would be used in his trial. As such, his deportation was considered to risk the violation of a number of Qatada’s fundamental human rights, such as the right to a fair trial and the right to freedom from torture. However, the British government persisted in their attempts to deport him until June 2013, when they finally succeeded in getting Qatada to leave ‘voluntarily’ after more than ten years in detention without charge (read the full version of this case directly through the European Court of Human Rights website. Victoria Brittain’s Shadow Lives: The forgotten women of the war on terror also provides an interesting account).

As mentioned earlier, the British public were not too interested in the fact that Qatada had already endured torture and persecution in Jordan and they were not too concerned as to whether or not he would receive a fair trial when he was returned to Jordan. Politicians found that speaking out against him earned them popularity points. The media hype made him ‘the other.’ That was all we needed to reconsider our own moral standpoints regarding Qatada’s human rights. Yes, ultimately Home Secretary Theresa May extracted a promise from the Jordanian government that it would not use evidence obtained by torture. From a government that was found to have practiced torture in his previous trial, this was not necessarily reassuring but, the point is, we didn’t really care – as long as he was deported from ‘our’ country. Indeed, hard as it may be to swallow, we are all capable of separating ourselves, who incidentally are deserving of our basic right to freedom from torture and ‘the other,’ the bad guy who is not quite so deserving of his basic rights.

The right to freedom from torture, cruel or inhuman treatment belongs to all of us, regardless of war or perceived threats to national security. We must be very careful in our attitudes towards the rights of our fellow human beings, regardless of who they are. Thomas Paine said it beautifully…

“He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”             

Kristee Boyd  

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