Sunday, November 05, 2006

Against torture

At any time, under any circumstances. Nick Cohen declares in the Observer today that we must deport terrorist suspects, "whatever their fate" - by which he means the possibility, indeed likelihood, that suspected jihadi terrorists will be tortured on their return to their country of origin.

Many of the responses already in accuse Cohen of advocating torture, which he doesn't so - yet there is something profoundly unsettling about Cohen's piece.

One is that he seems to have fallen for the characteristically New Labour idea that the old rules don't apply because we're in an unprecedented situation:
"For the first time in British history, there are asylum seekers who could attack the country which gave them sanctuary. I don't think people realise how unparalleled this change is."
Yet if perchance Mi5 were to get it wrong, that the suspect turned out not to be a terrorist at all, this would hardly be a 'new thing', would it?

The other is his approving remarks about what the French do in their "national interest", which is to routinely breach their obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights by sending terrorist suspects back to Algeria where they will almost certainly be tortured. "The French, being French", Cohen writes, "don't have taboos. They just do what's in their national interest." But he doesn't consider the wider implications of what this pursuit of 'national interest' means.

For its effect, surely, is to reinforce - both in principle and practice - the notion that states may treat their citizens in any way they please? But a rejection of this idea in favour of the principle of human rights that transcend national boundaries formed a large part of Cohen's support for regime-change in Iraq.

Furthermore, some awareness of what France has done in its 'national interest' in the past might have been appropriate here. Along with its use in Northern Ireland by the British and by the Americans in Vietnam, the Algerian torture scandal was indicative of the slow abrogation of the principles established by the English, French and American Revolutions.

In defending 'our way of life', it is my contention that it is this latter tradition we should be defending, rather than the backsliding into the barbarism we have seen growing in the West since the 1960s. Those using the 'ticking time-bomb' rationale should understand that there was never a time in human history where torture was not justified in terms of some wider good. It may have been dressed up in religious language but the justification has always been the same. What we should see as a threat is even the hint of a suggestion that this may in some way be acceptable, that we should ever consent, or be complicit in, the state having this kind of power over another human being.

Cohen points out that the historic legal abhorrence of torture in the English common law has long taken on the status of a taboo. When he seems to compare this unfavourably to the French, I think he is wrong to do so. Here I prefer the wisdom of ages and of nations to his. This is a matter of faith. Because, as I've said before, the strength to protect the rights of those who seek to destroy us is the glory and wisdom of democracy. It is this tradition that is worth defending - without apology, without compromise.

[Cross-posted at DSTPFW]

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