Friday, October 29, 2010

There is never an argument to defend the use of torture

Published in The Herald (Scotland) on 29 Oct 2010 ALSO see very simple action in post just below...

I was once tortured.

It happened in Bosnia in 1995 during the last months of the war there, after I was abducted near the Herzegovinan town of Mostar. The gunmen who took me prisoner claimed to be Croatian militiamen, but were, in reality, little more than thugs and gangsters.

During my short captivity, along with other civilian prisoners, I was bound and beaten with rifle butts before being singled out one night to be shot. To this day, I’ve never really been able to figure out what then followed – a mock execution or simply a case of my captors, who were drunk at this point – making a cock-up of trying to kill me.

The last I remember of that night, was kneeling with my hands tied behind my back looking down into a ditch where others lay twisted and lifeless. Then there was the sound of a pistol being cocked before being put to the back of my head. A second later, there was an empty click and some mocking laughter before a thump on the back of my neck sent me to oblivion into the ditch where I later regained consciousness lying alone among a heap of bodies.

Perverse as those events were, what also still puzzles me was the motive behind my captors’ behaviour. In short, there was nothing to be gained from the treatment they meted out. No secret or strategic information, nothing useful of a military or intelligence nature to be elicited from me. Evidently, they appeared driven by little more than some kind of primitive sadism.

But what if saving lives depended on such behaviour? Would it then be acceptable? Indeed, in these dangerous times, could it be argued that torture is a necessary evil on behalf of those tasked with fighting terrorism?

According to Sir John Sawers, the head of British overseas spy agency MI6, the answer is a resounding no. “Illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances, and we have nothing whatsoever to do with it,” Sir John emphasised yesterday, in the first public speech by a serving MI6 chief in its 100-year history. No sooner had Sir John issued his rebuttal than there was sceptical echoes of “yeah, right” resounding from myriad political lobbies and quarters.

Such cynicism is understandable. After all, it would be naive in the extreme to accept the notion that our security services – MI5 and MI6 – have never tortured anyone in the course of their operational activity. And even if you were gullible enough to buy into the suggestion that Britain’s spies haven’t had a hands-on approach to such methods, those they do business with often have fewer scruples when it comes to a bit of water boarding, electric shock interrogation, mock executions or the countless other methods that exist for extracting information through physical and psychological violence.

Yet the strange thing is, I find myself empathising with some of the dilemmas Sir John highlighted in his speech yesterday.

How many of us can begin to imagine the decision-making that goes with being in receipt of credible intelligence that could save innocent lives, while knowing at the same time it had been obtained through torture by a dubious regime with little regard for human rights?

Put another way, I suppose it’s a bit like the bar-room debate: what if your own wife, children or other family members were directly under threat at the hands of terrorists and the only way to avoid them being killed was for the security services to torture an individual known to have solid information that could help prevent their deaths? Would you countenance such a course of action? Given that MI5 and MI6 are compelled by UK and international law to avoid action that could lead to torture taking place, it must sometimes feel a bit like fighting terrorism with one hand tied behind your back. What’s more, as Sir John also rightly pointed out yesterday, in the unforgiving world in which his agents have to operate, “these are not abstract questions just for philosophy courses or searching editorials … they are real, constant operational dilemmas”.

But before we get too cosy with the idea that our secret services spend most of their time fretting over such things, or, indeed, that torture might have a role in the fight against terrorism, let’s pause and consider a few other points.

For a start, information obtained through torture is notoriously unreliable. In fact, most of those countries who readily make use of it in the war on terror do so largely because of systematic failings within their own capacity to gather dependable human intelligence.

Don’t misunderstand me here: I’m not saying that torture can never produce reliable intelligence, but time and again from wars of the past to those more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan it has proved to be the exception rather than the rule. We need only think back to how much pain, suffering and injustice was perpetrated in the name of intelligence gathering by the rendition process or in places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib to realise the extent of its failings.

How interesting it will be to see the outcome of the so-called Gibson Inquiry announced earlier this year by Prime Minister David Cameron aimed at examining claims that British security services were complicit in the torture of terror suspects, the best known of whom is Binyam Mohamed.

At the end of the day, real democracies don’t do torture. In today’s war on terror, far from being a necessary evil, torture is plain evil: a morally reprehensible act that is in itself is a form of terrorism.

No matter how much we try to justify it as a means to an end, in fighting today’s war on terror, it simply can never be so. Those states that advocate its use are little better than those morally bankrupt thugs at whose hands I, along with countless others, suffered in Bosnia all those years ago.

As the French Algerian author, Albert Camus, eloquently put it: “Torture has perhaps saved some, at the expense of honour … even when accepted in the interest of realism and efficacy, such a flouting of honour serves no purpose but to degrade our country in her own eyes and abroad.”

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