Tag Archives: torture

Preventing Torture and the Responsibility to Protect

New and graphic video released by Syrian dissidents shows massive torture regime allegedly orchestrated by Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad. The Coalition for a Democratic Syria, a group of Syrian Americans campaigning for a more interventionist US policy to address what they describe as a genocide being perpetrated by the Syrian regime, says the video highlights the need for a more aggressive international response.

The United Nations Convention against Torture, ratified by 158 countries including the United States and Syria, defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimating or coercing him or a third person, for for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or pother person acting in an official capacity.” States are expected to take measures to prevent torture in territories under their jurisdiction, including investigating accusations of torture. More broadly, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a still-contested principle in international human rights law, would suggest that the United States and other parties have a responsibility for intervening to prevent gross human rights violations around the world.

What do you think? What responsibility does the international community have to prevent acts of torture in Syria and elsewhere? What limits, if any, exist on that responsibility? Would you support intervention in Syria to protect human rights and prevent torture? Why?

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Does Bin Laden’s Death Vindicate Bush-Era Harsh Interrogation Techniques?

The killing of Osama bin Laden has revived a debate over the usefulness and morality of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a euphemism for torture according to critics) employed by the George W. Bush administration to extract information from suspected terrorists.  Several Bush administration officials and conservative commentators have claimed that the enhanced techniques, such as waterboarding, produced the vital intelligence that led the U.S.to bin Laden’s hideout.  Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s op-ed in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, entitled “The Waterboarding Trail to Bin Laden,” makes this case.  Mukasey argues that coercive interrogations, though used very infrequently, led to the capture of top Al-Qaeda operatives including Ramzi bin al Shibh and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed who were themselves subjected to these techniques and gave crucial information about bin Laden’s couriers—information that helped the U.S. track and kill the elusive bin Laden.  Upon taking office, President Obama discontinued the CIA program of harsh interrogations, a decision Mukasey suggests will harm U.S. security: “But policies put in place by the very administration that presided over this splendid success promise fewer such successes in the future. Those policies make it unlikely that we’ll be able to get information from those whose identities are disclosed by the material seized from bin Laden. The administration also hounds our intelligence gatherers in ways that can only demoralize them.”   

Opponents of Bush-era interrogation practices immediately fired back, contending there is little evidence that torture led to bin Laden, and pointing to the lengthy gap between the use of these techniques and the successful raid on bin Laden’s compound.  Adam Serwer of the Plum Line argues along these lines: “The pro-torture argument ignores the obvious — that if torture was so effective, bin Laden would have been dead long ago. Bin Laden was found through years of painstaking intelligence gathering, not through the barbarous methods supported by many Bush apologists.”  Former interrogator Matthew Alexander joins many critics (including Senator John McCain) in arguing that torture is not only immoral but practically it does more harm than good: it prompts detainees to fabricate information to stop the pain, it puts U.S. soldiers at risk, it harms America’s image overseas, and it serves as a potent recruiting tool for America’s enemies, including Al Qaeda. 

As is often the case, the answer to the question of whether enhanced interrogation techniques were pivotal in this case lies somewhere in between the stark narratives provided by either of these camps.  It appears that some of the intelligence that ultimately led to bin Laden did come from detainees who were subjected to these techniques (CIA Director Leon Panetta conceded as much in an interview with NBC news) but a great deal of additional intelligence gathering and analysis was required before the mission could be launched.  As National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor put it in a NY Times interview, “The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003…It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that Bin Laden was likely to be living there.”

Should these facts prompt President Obama to reconsider his rejection of his predecessor’s interrogation policies?  Is Obama putting America at risk by leaving a potentially important tool in the War on Terror in the toolbox?  Or does the use of this tool actually harm America’s interests, undermine its values, and make us more like our enemies?

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been a relatively quiet week in domestic U.S. politics. Congress continues to spar over the Pelosi-CIA briefing debate, and observers continue to speculate about who President Barack Obama might nominate to replace Justice David Souter in the U.S. Supreme Court. Congress also moved forward with passage of a cap-and-trade system to address greenhouse gas emissions (though the legislation still has a long way to go before it becomes law). The most interesting story of the week came on Wednesday, when former Vice President Dick Cheney and President Obama gave “dueling speeches” on the topic of torture and U.S. national security.

But while it was relatively quiet in the United States, it was a busy week globally. Here are five stories you might have missed:

1. The campaign for elections to the European Parliament, scheduled for June 4, are beginning to heat up. The European Parliament is selected on the basis of nation-wide proportional representation elections, which means that national politics often play out in interesting ways at the European-wide level. Thus, observers are looking to the results of the election in the U.K. as a forecast for Gordon Brown’s political future, which has been challenged in recent weeks by the ongoing corruption scandal. In Italy, the vote is being cast as a referendum on Silvio Berlusconi’s aggressive anti-immigration platform. And in France, the campaign is centering on the question of Turkish membership in the European Union.

2. The German presidential elections took place on Saturday, with incumbent president Horst Köhler narrowly winning re-election and handing Chancellor Angela Merkel a symbolic victory ahead of her own re-election campaign. The German presidency is elected by the upper house of the country’s parliament. The position has little real authority, with executive power being vested in the office of the chancellor. However, a challenge from Merkel’s coalition partners threatened to see Köhler defeated, creating a political challenge just four months from the country’s next general election.

3. A trade agreement currently being negotiated between China and Brazil aims to see the countries use their own currencies rather than U.S. dollars in transactions. The move, seen as part of China’s broader strategy of moving the U.S. dollar out of its status as the global reserve currency, expands on a previous currency swap agreement between the two countries. In separate negotiations, China agreed to expand imports of Brazilian chicken and beef and to provide up to U.S. $10 billion to Brazil’s government-controlled oil company in exchange for guaranteed oil supplies over the next decade. China overtook the United States as Brazil’s largest trading partner earlier this year. 

4. The government of Nigeria launched a new military offensive in the Niger River Delta last week, hoping to defeat armed opposition forces in the area. The move marks a decisive shift in the politics of the delta. The previous Nigerian administration had opted for a more diplomatic approach, emphasizing negotiations with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, an umbrella group emphasizing autonomy for the Warri region. According to observers, however, the new Nigerian government headed by Umaru Yar’Adua is opting for a military-based approach to the crisis. The oil-rich region houses operations by leading international oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, and Total. The conflict has led to a sharp decline in Nigerian oil exports, and observers fear that this may lead to a spike in global oil prices.

5. Former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide on Saturday. Roh rose to power as a human rights lawyer representing student and union activist in the struggle against the country’s military government in the 1980s. He was elected president in 2003 on a strong anti-corruption and political reform platform, earning him the nickname “Mr. Clean.” However, after his party suffered a series of electoral defeats, he resigned from office in 2008. Shortly after Roh’s resignation, accusations of corruption in his administration began to surface, including charges that a South Korean tycoon paid his wife $1 million while another family member received $5 million from the same tycoon. Roh killed himself after losing face as a result of the scandal. However, such accusations have not been uncommon in South Korean presidential politics, and two of the four presidents who preceded Roh have been jailed on similar charges. Nevertheless, observers fear that Roh’s suicide may increase political tensions in South Korea.