“Torture” has new meaning post-9/11
By Claudia Parsons
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Torture has always been rife around
the world but governments have generally condemned it, denied
it, or both.
Since the September 11 attacks, though, some experts say
the U.S. government has tried a new tactic — redefining the
meaning of torture.
Reports of abuse of prisoners in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay
have incensed U.S. adversaries and alienated allies. This week,
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has come under pressure in
Europe over reports of secret CIA prisons in Europe.
“There was never a world where torture didn’t exist,” said
Manfred Nowak, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, adding
it is practiced “in a great many countries around the world.”
“But usually, until recently, those governments would never
actually admit they’re torturing,” he said.
“Now we have for the first time both an academic and a
political debate saying ‘We are living under new conditions.
September 11 has changed the rules of the game and that’s why
we have to rethink the absolute prohibition on torture.”‘
Washington says the Geneva Convention does not apply to
foreign captives in its “war on terrorism” but human rights
activists say it is still bound by the 1984 U.N. “Convention
against Torture,” to which it is a signatory.
President George W. Bush said again on Tuesday that the
United States does not practice torture, or send suspects to
foreign countries that torture.
A survey by the Pew Research Center last month showed that
46 per cent of Americans believed torturing terrorism suspects
to extract vital information was “sometimes” or “often”
justified and 17 per cent said it might be justified “rarely.”
ABC News quoted CIA sources last month as saying that six
“Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” had been instituted for top
al Qaeda suspects, including slaps and extreme cold.
The most severe is “water boarding” in which a prisoner is
bound to a board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet,
ABC said. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and
water is poured over him, inducing a feeling of drowning.
“The cellophane is a modern addition to a technique that
had its origins in the Spanish Inquisition,” said Tom
Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, adding that the State
Department itself defines the technique as torture.
“There’s not just confusion between the U.S. definition and
everybody else’s definition of torture, there’s profound
confusion within the U.S. government,” Malinowski said.
In October the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a proposal
by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was tortured as
a prisoner during the Vietnam War, for a ban on “cruel,
inhumane and degrading” treatment of detainees.
But the White House has been pushing to exempt the CIA,
arguing that it would hamper anti-terrorism operations.
Michael Greenberger, a senior Justice Department official
in the Clinton administration who now heads the University of
Maryland’s Center for Health and Homeland Security, said McCain
was trying to bring the United States into compliance with
international norms, while Bush wanted to leave the door open
for the CIA to act beyond those norms without prosecution.
In Europe, Rice has defended U.S. treatment of detainees,
saying that the war on terrorism was “challenging our norms and
our practices…” but that intelligence gathered by the United
States “very often … saves European lives.”
In an article in Newsweek last month, McCain argued against
relaxing the standard of what amounts to torture.
“To make someone believe that you are killing him by
drowning is no different than holding a pistol to his head and
firing a blank. I believe that it is torture, very exquisite
torture,” he wrote.
And if the United States is torturing prisoners, McCain
wondered what results such treatment has brought.
“Abuse of prisoners often produces bad intelligence because
under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors
want to hear — whether it is true or false — if he believes
it will relieve his suffering,” McCain said.