By Jim Miles
The current media frenzy concerning Obama’s coming release of more information on U.S. torture between 2000 and 2005 is a political storm conveniently kept out of context.
There are two aspects to the context that are missing. First, this is not new information and well before current events erupted into the news, the case has been made all along that the Bush administration in general – Bush and Cheney, their political advisors and legal representatives – are all complicit in contravening the Geneva Conventions on torture and the treatment of prisoners of war. Secondly, terror and torture go hand in glove, the two are fully related and have been used by the U.S. and its proxies in many different contexts around the world – and are still doing so as Obama has put an end to torture at Guantanamo, but has not denied renditions to friendly torturers elsewhere.
The spin-doctors in the White House are no longer allowing the use of the term “war on terror” although the facts of the war have not changed. As the global war on whatever or the long war on whomever continues, the abuses associated with terror and torture will continue to spread. The initiator of terror of course is the occupier of foreign territories creating the obvious wish on the part of the indigenous populations for the occupier to go home, currently involving most of the Middle East from Israel/Palestine through to Pakistan. This has happened throughout history, ancient and modern, from the Crusades and the Mongol hordes through the genocide of native populations in the Americas to the more modern terrors of a highly developed technological warfare that readily conquers “enemies” as defined by the political elites for a variety of reasons from religious zealotry to political zealotry, frequently one and the same thing, seen most evidently in the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan….and Pakistan?
Put in simpler terms, the U.S. uses terror, the U.S. uses torture, its allies and compatriots use terror, use torture, and as the U.S. expands it war frontiers further into Pakistan, so will the edges of terror and torture expand.
Power and Control
Torture is ultimately about power and control. It ranges from the pure brutality of physical torture often described in many of the wars for suppression of indigenous control in Central America to the more ‘refined’ torture currently used to break down a prisoner’s psychological persona without leaving the physical scars of the less sophisticated forms of torture. Torture is used to create terror, to create a population that is subservient and easily controlled by the very fear, the terror that it spreads. In turn, as terror and torture strips away the thin layers of civilization that control man’s baser instincts, terror and torture become devices used by the combatants on both sides.
As the most powerful country in the world, the U.S. role in abrogating human rights and crimes against humanity have a powerful effect elsewhere in the world. “The actions of the United States have also made it more difficult to criticize the violations of international law by other countries, most notably Israel.” What occurred at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Bagram airbase “bear more than a passing resemblance” with the “testimonies of Palestinians released from Israeli prisons.” (1)
As expressed shortly after Abu Ghraib, “the powerful often turn to torture in times of crisis not because it works but because it salves their fears and insecurities with the psychic balm of empowerment.” Even though torture does not do what it is purported to do, provide useful information, “a plea to torture one terrorist with a ticking bomb becomes the rationale for insecure leaders to win the right to torture someone, anyone, to assuage the uncertainties of rule and empower themselves for dominion.” (2)
I have no sympathy – and perhaps a seed of disdain – for Obama’s current problems on the political front with his inheritance of the Bush legacy of torture. If the world is to look forward with “hope” for “change” it needs to start at home. Simply releasing more information will provide neither hope nor change. If Obama wishes to be more than a man of wonderful sounding phrases, he will have to do what is correct by international law and arrange whatever is necessary under U.S. law to investigate and prosecute those involved with the torture – not just the low level people, those “following orders”, but the ones in the executive and legislative branches who formed the concept and provided the legal okay for it, contrary to international laws.
From readings of international law, Obama himself becomes guilty of torture as anyone who is complicit with aiding and abetting torture becomes guilty of the crime. If he refuses to act, then under international standards, Obama becomes guilty of the crime. Unfortunately the U.S. is one of the most contradictory countries when it comes to upholding laws, always telling others that they need to be transparent, open, democratic, but when it suits its own purposes it relies on ignoring, abrogating, or denying international law.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Phillippe Sands work “Torture Team” examines one particular case related to Guantanamo and arrives at the clear conclusion that there is good case for prosecuting Bush, Cheney, Feith, Haynes, Gonzales, Yoo, Bybee and others from this case in itself. (3)
Others included in this list are the medical workers, physicians and psychologists, who supported those actually applying the torture.
Within its own internal laws the U.S. has provided immunity from prosecution under the Military Commissions Act as it “Gives US officials immunity from prosecution for torturing detainees that were captured before the end of 2005 by US military and CIA.” (4)
Sands adds, “Legislation creating such an immunity would allow the crime to be covered up: it was almost an admission that a crime had occurred.” (5) That immunity, however arguable under U.S. law, does not extend outside the U.S.: “Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, any country may prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by anyone anywhere.” (6)
Alfred McCoy in “A Question of Torture – CIA Interrogation From the Cold War to the War on Terror” examines the history of torture up to the days of Abu Ghraib. He starts by stating “five intertwined aspects of its perverse psychology”, the fifth of which needs to be restated strongly today:
“…a nation that sanctions torture in defiance of its democratic principles pays a terrible price. For nearly two millennia, the practice has been identified with tyrants and empires. For the past two centuries, its repudiation has been synonymous with the humanist ideals of the Enlightenment and democracy. When any modern state tortures even a few victims, the stigma compromises its majesty and corrupts its integrity. Its officials must spin an ever more complex web of lies that, in the end, weakens the bonds of trust and the rule of law that are the sine qua non of a democracy.” (7)
For Obama to avoid complicity, for Obama to not be seen as opposing basic human rights, for Obama to avoid being labelled an ineffective orator, he needs to act on the information that is at hand and proceed with some form of investigation that has the power it needs to fully complete its legal tasks. For the U.S. to not be seen as it has for the past decade as a country that trammels other people’s international rights, the people of the U.S., and their elected representatives, need to support that investigation.
Canada is a minor player on the world political scene, increasingly seen as nothing more than a U.S. puppet, a minion succouring favour, trying to be one of the big boys on the global stage by supporting the Bush doctrine, even after Bush is gone. The Canadian government under Harper has supported the U.S. in Afghanistan and currently on into Pakistan without considering the context of who started the great mujahideen warriors in the first place (the U.S. CIA and Pakistani ISI) and why they are now fighting them in Central Asia (gas, oil, containment of China and Russia).
This complicity extends to torture. The case of Maher Arar is a relatively well-known extradition case that the government aided in. More recently, now that Guantanamo is being shut down, a Canadian citizen Omar Khadr is being denied entry back into Canada even though the Federal Court has said it should be allowed. One of the government’s arguments is that Khadr needs to be processed through the U.S. legal system (hmm…see above) even though under international law he could be tried here in Canada. While Harper wishes to appear tough on terrorism, he is only making himself complicit in the illegal practices utilized by the U.S. at Guantanamo, soon perhaps to be sanctioned by Obama as well.
The Canadian pretender to the throne, whom I do not always agree with, appears to understand the situation more clearly than Harper. Michael Ignatieff states,
“…even in emergency, even if some liberties must be suspended, a constitutional state must remain answerable to the higher law, a set of standards that protect foundational commitments to the dignity of every person.” (8)
Terror is an act of aggression. It is part and parcel of the nature of warfare, and is a particular conjoint of unilateral pre-emptive warfare. The answer to terror is twofold. First the initiating countries, those that are doing the invading, manipulating, coercive activities, need to stop. The second is that terror used in response to terror cannot be stopped by war, but needs to be stopped by international police work and the upholding of international law internally and internationally by all parties.
For Canada, hopefully Harper will see the last of his controlling reign in the next election and equally hopefully, Ignatieff can stand up his own beliefs in human rights extending beyond state legalities. Obama needs to act in his own back yard and ignore his own state legalities of the Military Commissions Act, or terror will continue regardless of any war label applied to U.S. actions. If it cannot be contained and brought to justice in the U.S. it will not happen internationally.
– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.
1. Byers, Michael. War Law – Understanding International Law and Armed Conflict. Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, 2005. p. 154.
2. McCoy, Alfred W. A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2006. p. 207.
3. Sands, Phillippe. Torture Team – Deception, Cruelty and the Compromise of Law. Allen Lane (Penguin), 2008. See review at Palestine Chronicle.
4. Anup Shah. “Military Commissions Act 2006—Unchecked Powers?” Znet. October 02, 2006.
5. Sands, ibid, p. 252.
6. Byers, ibid, p. 143
7. McCoy, ibid, p. 14.
8. Ignatieff, Michael. The Lesser Evil – Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. Princeton University, 2004. p. 44.