February 1st 2017
In a press conference last week President Donald Trump said he believed in the worth of torture but then added most surprisingly that using it wasn’t going to be his decision. It would be decided by the Secretary of Defence, General James Mattis, who, as Trump said, is against torture.
Three years ago the US Senate Intelligence Committee published a summary of a thorough report on the recent American use of torture. Its chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein, said the 6,000 page report is “one of the most significant oversight efforts in the history of the US.”
The report showed that the CIA did not provide accurate information on torture to Congress and also provided misleading information. The report also concluded that the CIA impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making. While the report was being prepared the CIA penetrated the Senate Committee’s computers, arousing the fury of its members.
Bush and and his vice-president Dick Cheney were deeply involved in initiating the torture program. The Administration claimed that the waterboarding 183 times (the dipping of the head in water so that the prisoner feels he is drowning) of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, led to the foiling of a terror plot against Los Angeles’s Library Tower. But the Senate report concludes that the information could have been learnt without using torture.
The report’s primary focus is on discerning whether the use of torture gained valuable intelligence. It concluded that it did not.
When President Barack Obama was elected he swiftly moved to ban waterboarding and other torture techniques. However, he refused to authorize a full, in depth, Justice Department investigation which, if it had taken place, would doubtless have pointed a finger at Bush and Cheney.
In the UK it is alleged that Prime Minister Tony Blair – Bush’s principal ally – accepted torture. The UK is not accused of conducting torture on its own soil but of sending those it wanted vigorously interrogated to countries which sanction torture.
In 2005 the UK government argued unsuccessfully before the Supreme Court for the right to use torture. This was the first time in over 200 years that a government had attempted to make it legitimate. Not even when Nazi prisoners were captured was torture used, it being judged that it wouldn’t reveal much more than what sophisticated interrogation techniques could.
Ancient Rome tortured the early Christians. The Church, repelled by what had happened then, for more than a thousand years used its influence to ensure that torture was abolished in Europe. In 1215 the Lateran Council condemned torture as cruel. Tragically, as a tool of the Inquisition, the Church brought it back.
From the fifteenth century onwards England set its face against the use of evidence produced under torture. (The US shares its common law with England.) The judges who presided over these decisions pointed to the inherent weakness of the evidence in confessions procured by torture since a person subject to unbearable pain will say anything to stop it. Only the special Court of the Star Chamber could issue torture orders but in 1640 the court was abolished and since then no torture warrant has been issued in Britain.
In his book “The Rule of Law”, published six years’ ago, Tom Bingham, the former senior law lord on the Supreme Court, wrote, referring to the Blair government, that “it cannot be said that the UK has shown the implacable hostility to torture that should be expected from a state whose courts led the world in rejecting it”.
In Prussia torture was abolished in 1740, in France in 1789 and in Russia in 1847. In the US, Congress passed the eighth amendment to the constitution which forbad “cruel and unusual punishment”.
Torture returned with a vengeance during the twentieth century – in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Franco’s Spain, Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, and, most recently, in the US and the UK.
In 1972 Amnesty International opened a campaign for a UN Anti-Torture Convention.
In 1981 it won the support of Sweden, the first country to take up the cause. In 1984 the UN finally approved a legally binding treaty against torture. Quite soon after the treaty was ratified by most members of the UN, including the US of President Ronald Reagan and the UK of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
In 1999 in the UK Supreme Court, for the first time anywhere, a high court decided that sovereign immunity must not become sovereign impunity and that under the UN convention the ex-president of Chile, Augusto Pinochet, then in London, could be prosecuted for torture.
Yet still, says Amnesty, torture continues to be practiced by most countries, although the EU, the US and Russia are now free of it – that is until President Trump implements his convictions.