Amnesty International and Torture

Amnesty International, having been happy to compare the US prison at Guantanamo to the labour camps of Vorkuta, Kolyma, and Noril’sk, is now working hard on making sure that torture is an acceptable practice around the world:

Amnesty International USA Senior Deputy Executive Director Curt Goering said:

“Although the US government continues to assert its condemnation of torture and ill-treatment, these statements contradict what is happening in practice.

“The US government is not only failing to take steps to eradicate torture it is actually creating a climate in which torture and other ill-treatment can flourish – including by trying to narrow the definition of torture.”

So the Yanks are trying to narrow the definition of torture, presumably to allow them to carry out certain practices without being accused of using torture.  This might well be true, but at some point we’re going to have to come up with a definition of what does and does not constitute torture.  So how do we do this?  Noticeably, outfits like AI shy away from any discussion or study into what is and isn’t torture, preferring to apply their own definition without any consideration for the world at large or any consultation.  Unfortunately, the Amnesty definition of torture is thus rather alien to those who 1) Amnesty are trying to convince to stop torturing, and 2) the public who ultimately are required to hold the torturers to account.

For instance, were I to learn that my government was involved in the use of torture as I see it, I would conjure up images of electric shocks to the bollocks, Guy Fawkes on the rack, red hot pokers, mock executions, beatings, floggings, tying people to anthills, ect. and would be rightfully appalled.  I would be encouraged to take serious action against such a government, be it my own or anyone else’s.  Now each and every person will have their own view of what is torture and what is not.  For instance, some will think standing somebody to attention for 3 hours is torture, others will not.  I’m sure everyone will agree that boiling somebody alive is torture, but there will be disagreements about whether sleep deprivation – to differing extents – is or is not.

In order to make torture unacceptable, it is necessary for the public to be suitably outraged to the point that they demand their governments stop; in order to get the public suitably outraged at torture, you must first define torture to encompass all acts which a significant number consider to be torture.  And here is where Amnesty International has fouled up considerably, and done untold harm in the process.  Take their recent report on torture as practiced by the US, for instance:

The latter include hooding, stripping and shackling of detainees in painful positions as well as using military dogs to intimidate blindfolded detainees; prolonged isolation, deprivation of food and sleep and exposure to extremes of temperature also appear to have been common practice to punish detainees for failing to cooperate or to “soften them up” for interrogation.

All of which Amnesty defines as torture.  Well, sorry – and here I realise in the eyes of some I am admitting to being Tamerlane’s less understanding brother – but when I define torture, I do not include any of those practices above per se.  For sure, prolonged isolation for lengthy periods, or exposure to “extreme” temperatures which are genuinely extreme would be considered torture in anyone’s book.  But I don’t believe I am alone in thinking that threatening somebody with a dog or making them damned uncomfortable constitutes torture.  They are unpleasant practices, without a doubt, and whether or not they are effective or necessary is open to debate; but this debate does not belong in a discussion about torture.

In broadening the definition of torture to encompass practices which are in the eyes of most people merely unpleasant and not torturous, Amensty International is diluting the very force of the word “torture” and the emotions which it stirs in people: the very emotions which they are hoping, and indeed are necessary, to ensure the public forces its government to outlaw the practice.  I am sure I am not alone in this, and I will stick my neck out and claim to speak for many, but in the years since the Iraq war the use of the word “torture” has become so overused that now when I read it, I do not express outrage as before, but instead stifle a yawn.

This has come about by seeing umpteen newspaper articles and press releases charging the US and its allies with torture, and when I churn through the text looking for appalling tales of prisoners having their fingernails ripped out or other such practices, I find that the inmate in question has suffered no more than having some bird stick her tits in his face.  I’m sorry, but I’ve read way too many of these stories to even bother with them any more.  Splashing water on a Koran, depriving them of food or sleep (within reason), or making them feel utterly miserable, humiliated, and uncomfortable does not constitute torture in my book.  If people want my help in condemning torture, you are going to have to leave out stuff like this and narrow your definition to those practices which I consider to be torturous (and the list will be long, believe me).

And Amnesty is doing the exact opposite.  In accusing the USA of trying to narrow the definition, and themselves trying to broaden it, they have alientated thousands of people who would normally support them on this issue.  And what is worse, using such a broad definition fails to distinguish between a government routinely lopping off limbs and a single soldier leading somebody around on a leash.  According to Amnesty, the two acts under their definition of torture are morally inseparable, which to most people is ludicrous.  In hoping to promote humiliating prisoners to be worthy of equal moral outrage as barbaric acts of medieval torture, Amnesty achieves only in excusing the latter to a large degree.  How many governments, now reading daily that the US tortures people on its own soil, are now comfortable in flogging people to death, not knowing or caring that the US “torture” involved nothing more than a man being hooded for a few hours? 

Furthermore, this broadening of the definition allows the US to deflect much of the deserved criticism for genuine acts of torture being carried out by its troops in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.  They can simply point to a handful of ludicrous allegations of torture, and ask the public to decide come the next election.  How can the public be expected to hold the government to account for genuinely torturing prisoners when the details are buried under a mountain of other accusations of torture which the average man on the street thinks is no such thing?

If Amnesty and its members want to make progress on the elimination of torture, they need to start by working with other human rights organisations and the UN (yeah, I know) in drawing up a comprehensive list of those practices which are considered by civilised societies to constitute torture, and gather public support in ensuring that these practices are outlawed without exception worldwide.  Because all they are ensuring on their present course is that the public are so apathetic to accusations of torture that governments the world over can continue to practice it with impunity.

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2 Responses to Amnesty International and Torture

  1. douglas says:

    Tim,

    I don’t agree with you. Specifically:

    “The latter include hooding, stripping and shackling of detainees in painful positions as well as using military dogs to intimidate blindfolded detainees; prolonged isolation, deprivation of food and sleep and exposure to extremes of temperature also appear to have been common practice to punish detainees for failing to cooperate or to soften them up for interrogation.”

    Every one of these is torture. Lets assume that they were defined as such for a moment. It would mean that we simply had to treat prisoners in a decent and reasonable way. What’s wrong with that? If these activities are taken to extremes, particularily sleep deprivation, deprivation of food, extremes of temperature, you are running one of Alexander Solzhenitsyns’ Gulags. Most reasonable folk considered them to be concentration camps. I consider Gitmo and Abhu Graib to be concentration camps, and that was before the latest derogation. I’d have thought that keeping someone locked up without charge in these kind of facilities was, by the nature of the facility, torture.

    That is the position Amnesty should start from, and that is something they should try to roll out world wide.

    It is not for you to define what another person can or cannot stand before their mind cracks or their body fails. If we must lock these people up, they should be treated as Prisoners of War, not as enemy combatants or modern day inmates of Bedlam for the amusement of Joe Six Pack.

    On the ticking bomb arguement, the gloves could and would come off, but the interrogator had better be right, not have the wrong suspect, and throw themselves on the mercy of the court.

  2. Tim Newman says:

    If these activities are taken to extremes, particularily sleep deprivation, deprivation of food, extremes of temperature, you are running one of Alexander Solzhenitsyns Gulags.

    Agreed. But if not taken to extremes, they do not constitute torture. Hence when you say:

    Every one of these is torture.

    you are wrong, as the degree to which these activities are carried out determines whether they are torture, not the activity itself. If as you say sleep deprivation is by itself torture, then I can honestly say that I was tortured more times than I can remember when I was an army cadet.

    I consider Gitmo and Abhu Graib to be concentration camps, and that was before the latest derogation.

    I’m sure you do. But most reasonable people would not, especially those who have read about the Gulag system and seen for themselves what conditions in a real concentration camp were like.

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