On the Path to Barbarity It is no accident that those who advocate war for humanitarian reasons end up justifying torture

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Arguments in
favor of the legalization of torture have not lost their capacity
to shock. The fact that US attorneys-general and the senior legal
adviser at the state department have said they are in favor of it
seems proof to many of America’s slide into barbarism. In reality,
however, their pro-torture arguments are no different from the claims
made in favor of "humanitarian war" and of other forms
of military intervention – arguments that, unfortunately, have
become increasingly popular since the end of the cold war.

Torture and
"humanitarian war" are similar in many ways. Both involve
the inflicting of violence in order to force a change of behavior.
Both are predicated on the assumption of guilt: torture is justified
because the victim is said to be a terrorist, or an "illegal
combatant" who has committed or is about to commit a terrible
crime, while preemptive war is justified because a state is said
to be "a rogue state" violating international law (Iraq)
or committing crimes against humanity (Yugoslavia). It is therefore
no coincidence that the US administration that justifies its wars
in the name of claims about humanity and its right to liberty also
advocates the use of torture to protect these.

Torture and
war have been the subject of absolute or near-absolute interdiction
in international law. In the aftermath of the Second World War,
the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials established the principle that crimes
against peace are the supreme crime. Aggressive war "contains
within itself the accumulated evil of the whole," said the
Nuremberg judges, who understood that once war starts, war crimes
will inevitably follow. It was therefore better to ban it completely.
This was done by the UN charter, which declared all war, including
so-called humanitarian war, illegal. War is allowed only in the
very restricted and clear-cut cases of self-defense and when authorized
by the Security Council. Torture was similarly banned by UN convention
in 1985.

Any attempt
to legalize torture or war was simply regarded as the thin end of
the wedge. Today, however, many people who say they shudder at the
abuses committed by the Spanish Inquisition, or by the Americans
at Guantánamo, campaign actively in favor of war. Humanitarian
intervention became fashionable as soon as Iraq was bombed in 1991
"to protect the Kurds and the Shia." Now the trump question
put to anti-interventionists is: "What would you have done
about Rwanda?" Yet this is the same argument as that advocated
by the torturer who says he is trying to save lives. Activists in
favor of international judicial and military intervention denounce
peacemaking and amnesty laws as acts of appeasement, and they typically
strive to break down antiwar sentiment by getting people to admit
that intervention might be justified in some extreme cases. But
if it is, then why not torture too?

This unwelcome
campaign to give war a chance persists in spite of the fact that
the very abuses that inspired the universal ban on war in 1945 have
indeed been committed by the Americans and their allies in their
assault on the old postwar sovereignty-based system of the UN charter.
There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and there was
no genocide in Kosovo (Milosevic was never charged with it), but
many people still regard war as something at least potentially civilized.
We need instead to renew the deep conviction that seized the collective
conscience of mankind in 1945 that the international system, and
the ideas that underpin it, should be structured so as to ensure
peace at any price.

This article
originally appeared in The Guardian.

10, 2007

Laughland’s [send him
] next book is A
History of Political Trials from Charles I to Saddam Hussein

(Peter Lang).

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