Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Torture as Acceptable Government Policy: USA, NATO and Canada

By John W. Warnock
Act Up in Sask
16 January 2012

On January 5 Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared that within one month the U.S. government and NATO must hand over control of the Parwan prison at Agram Air Force Base north of Kabul to the Afghan government. An Afghan government commission investigated and reported that the there is systematic abuse of those held in this prison.

Gul Rahman Qazi, head of the commission, told the press that only 300 of the 2700 mainly Afghans held at the prison had been charged with any offense. The remainder “were being held without charges or evidence of guilt” and should be released. The vast majority of detainees had “no access to the courts” or family members. Many of those who had been charged in court and released, or who had served enough time in the jail to cover their sentences, were still being held by NATO authorities on the grounds that they were suspected of being insurgents.

In addition, the Afghan commission charged that detainees were being subjected to practices that were widely understood to be torture. These included beatings, various techniques of sleep deprivation, being held in small cells with no light, no heat and inadequate clothes and blankets, and being stripped and given intrusive body searches. Some of those who had not been charged were held for long periods of time in solitary confinement.

The U.S. and Canadian governments rejected Karzai’s demand arguing that the abuse of detainees at Afghan prisons was widespread and unacceptable. They would not transfer detainees to Afghan facilities. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission stated that President Karzai’s government did not have the finances or ability to operate the Parwan prison. Those held in the NATO prison would be better off to stay where they were.

In October 2011 the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan released a report which concluded that there was widespread abuse of detainees in the prisons run by Afghan authorities. President Karzai’s secret police was accused of systematically using torture. But there is no recognition by NATO governments that torture takes place in NATO facilities.

The U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay

At the beginning of the US war on Afghanistan, the administration of President George W. Bush established a new detention prison at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Many of those captured by U.S. forces in the war were sent there as “enemy combatants.” This was a calculated strategy so that the detainees would not have access to basic civil rights and the courts under the U.S. Constitution or as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. Those eventually charged would be tried by Military Tribunals, which deny many of the basic civil rights which are the normal practice in civilian courts.

It is now widely known that prisoners at the Guantanamo site have been beaten, given the cold water treatment, subjected to various sleep deprivation techniques, held in wire cages with constant bright lights and loud music, stripped and mishandled by women agents, forced to stand naked for long periods of time, held in painful stress positions, and subject to 24 hour straight interrogations. Those of a Muslim faith experienced religious humiliation. These techniques were also used in the early days of the facility at Parwan.

One of the controversial techniques used by U.S. officials has been waterboarding: a suspect is fastened to a platform or board, a heavy cloth is placed over the face, and water is then poured on the detainee. It produces the effect of drowning, inducing terror and resulting in long term physical effects. It is now recognized that the CIA used waterboarding on certain detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, believed to have planned the 9/11 attack on the USA, has been waterboarded 183 times by U.S. officials. This torture technique was used during the Inquisition as well as by British forces on IRA suspects in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. The U.S. government hanged Japanese soldiers for waterboarding U.S. captives during World War II.

President Obama’s war

The war in Iraq was seen as George Bush’s war. The Democrats in Washington and Barrack Obama insisted during the 2008 presidential campaign that the war in Afghanistan was “the good war” as it was against the perpetrators of 9/11. President Obama pledged to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay during his first term of office, but has refused to do so. The number of detainees has fallen from the peak of 775 under Bush to 171 today. Only one detainee has been charged and convicted.

When George Bush left office there were about 600 detainees at Parwan. Under President Obama, the number has risen to a high of 3,000. In May 2010 the International Committee of the Red Cross revealed that the U.S. government also maintains one of their secret “black jails” at Parwan. The Obama administration takes the position that Afghanistan is a “war zone” and thus detainees have no access to U.S. constitutional guarantees.

Canada and the use of torture

All the NATO governments are bound by the United Nations Convention Against Torture. The prohibition covers “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for the purposes of obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession...” Torture is never justified. Extraordinary rendition, which has been used by the Canadian government, is prohibited. The Canadian government has ratified all the international conventions which prohibit torture.

Torture is also banned under the Canadian Criminal Code. The description of torture is the same as in the UN Convention. Being ordered by a superior officer or a public authority is no defence. No information gathered using torture is admissible as evidence. So why is it that the U.S., Canadian and NATO governments engage in torture?

The use of torture in imperialist wars

The international law against the use of torture was developed in Europe during the 17th century. Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), a Dutch protestant theologian, is often identified as “the father of international law.” In 1625 he published the three volume work, The Law of War and Peace. International law was viewed as a “natural law” which was to be followed among civilized, Christian countries. It had a utilitarian basis as well: we won’t torture your soldiers if you don’t torture ours.

But it was never intended that these international laws would apply in the relations between the European imperial powers and their colonies. Those who were colonized were not Christians and were judged to be barbarians. Grotius himself was a strong supporter of Dutch imperialism and even worked for the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch denied basic human rights to those they colonized and employed torture as part of colonial administration, as did the other European imperial powers.

Today, the international law of torture is said to be jus cogens, an international standard of behaviour to which all countries are obliged to comply, even if they have not adopted the international conventions. But there is the reality of the gross discrepancies in power, now between the advanced capitalist states in NATO and the less developed countries. Some have noted that the Afghan and Iraq wars have again featured the Christians against the non-Christians. How many people with white skins are detained in the prisons at Guantanamo Bay and Parvan? Why would NATO governments find it useful or necessary to invoke the UN Convention Against Torture? Against whom?

John W. Warnock is retired from teaching political economy and sociology at the University of Regina. He well remembers the course in international law that he took from Professor William V. O’Brien at Georgetown University.

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