144 countries are party to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. One of those countries is the United States of America. The Convention begins:
1. For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means 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 intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
A former US torturer in Iraq has now written a book about his experiences. Tim Shipman writes in the Sunday Telegraph:
Tony Lagouranis said he conducted mock executions, forced men and boys into agonising stress positions, kept suspects awake for weeks on end, used dogs to terrify prisoners and subjected others to hypothermia.
Well, I’m glad the British don’t do things like that.
Disturbingly for the British military, which has distanced itself from the worst excesses of Abu Ghraib, Mr Lagouranis says the Americans learnt much of their uncompromising approach from British interrogators.
"We heard about interrogators in Northern Ireland who were successful. Some of our interrogators went on the British interrogation course, which was tough. People wanted to emulate that, but we went too far."
It doesn’t even work:
"That doesn’t mean they work in terms of extracting intelligence," he said. "I didn’t get actionable intelligence using the harsher methods; I got it using manipulation and lying and by promising them things I didn’t deliver on."
Abu Ghraib was not the only place where Tony Lagouranis says he and his colleagues tortured people and he says most of their victims were innocent.
But how could a state that has ratified the Convention against Torture justify using such techniques? When a state ratifies a UN convention, it has the choice of opting out of certain provisions. It can put forward its “reservations”. The current list of states party to the Convention, along with their reservations can be found here.
At the time Tony Lagouranis and his colleagues were conducting their (enhanced) interrogations, the US Department of Justice argued that because of the reservations the United States had made when it ratified the Convention, it was not bound by the prohibition against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of non-US citizens held outside the United States.
In other words, we’re not torturers. We’re just cruel, inhuman and degrading - and only to foreigners in other countries. That makes it alright then.
But of course that was then, and this is now. After all, in October 2005, the US Senate voted 90-9 in favour of the McCain Detainee Amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill H.R. 2863.
It says, amongst other things:
No individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States Government, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
There would be no more exceptions.
But of course, there always are exceptions, because when President Bush signed H.R. 2863 into law, he issued one of his famous signing statements:
The executive branch shall construe Title X in Division A of the Act, relating to detainees, in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power, which will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the President, evidenced in Title X, of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks.
What that headache-inducing sentence actually means is that President Bush can ignore the McCain Amendment whenever he decides it’s necessary as part of the “War on Terror”. And the biggest, but by no means only, battlefront in the so-called “War on Terror” is Iraq. So Tony Lagouranis may now be back home in Chicago, but others like him are not. And we can’t just blame it all on the Americans – every country that is part of the Coalition of the Willing is complicit. All for one, and one for all.
Is this just old news? No. It’s not old news until it stops.