Two points on torture.

News & Politics

Following World War II, the United States took the lead in establishing a broad international human rights framework, imperfect and difficult-to-enforce as it is.

In part, we did it because we had a relatively progressive government; in part it was motivated by the terrible abuses perpetrated by the Nazis and the Japanese.

But mostly it was about geo-politics: we pushed a framework of human rights that emphasized civil and political rights to shame the USSR, a multi-ethnic state that repressed individual political freedoms, and the Soviet Union and its client states focused on a human rights framework built around social and economic rights, shaming us for being so rich while so many of our citizens lived under the yoke of grinding poverty.

Fast-forward four or five decades to the so-called "war on terror." Those human rights regimes are part of a broader set of international norms now viewed by many hawks as an inconvenience. The Bush administration and its allies have spent five years undermining multilateral institutions and the very concept of international law at every turn. From pulling out of the ICC and Kyoto, to blowing off the UN Charter in its invasion of Iraq to rejecting the "constraints" of the Geneva Conventions, the pattern has been quite clear.

One reason that's become a guiding principle is clear from an Op-ed in today's San Francisco Chronicle by Phillippe Sands, a law professor at University College in London and author of Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking Global Rules. Sands points out that despite our very best attempts, custom once created is not so easy to destroy:

Before embarking on international travels, [Cheney's new Chief-of Staff] David Addington and others who are said to be closely associated with the crafting of the Bush administration's policy on the interrogation of detainees would do well to reflect on the fate of Augusto Pinochet.
The Chilean senator and former head of state was unexpectedly arrested during a visit to London on Oct. 16, 1998, at the request of a Spanish judge who sought his extradition on various charges of international criminality, including torture.
The House of Lords -- Britain's upper house -- ruled that the 1984 convention prohibiting torture removed any right he might have to claim immunity from the English courts and gave a green light to the continuation of extradition proceedings. […]
"It never occurred to us that the torture convention would be used to detain the senator," remarked the human rights adviser who had been involved in the decision by Pinochet and Chile to ratify the Convention Against Torture in 1988. […]
[This] came back to me recently, during a debate with Professor John Yoo at the World Affairs Council of San Francisco.
Yoo, a UC Berkeley law professor, is the author of legal advice that rode roughshod over the torture convention, and contributed to at least one opinion that ignored the well-established international definition of torture.
Yoo was well aware of the torture convention. However, when I raised the Pinochet precedent in our debate, he seemed slightly taken aback.
It seems he may not have turned his mind to the possibility that a legal adviser associated with a policy that permits torture contrary to international legal obligations could be subject to international investigation. […]
The [torture] convention sets up an elaborate enforcement mechanism. The United States and the 140- plus other countries that have joined the convention agree to take certain actions if any person who has committed torture is found on their territory. […]
The convention intends to avoid impunity for this most serious of international crimes by removing the possibility that the torturer will be able to find any safe haven. This was the basis for Pinochet's arrest in Britain.
The potential problem for Yoo, vice presidential chief of staff David Addington and others who may have been associated with torture, is to be found in Article 4 of the convention. This section criminalizes not only the act of torture itself but also other acts, including "an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture." […]
That evidence is not yet established, and it would be inappropriate to prejudge the outcome of any investigations that may be carried out in the future.
Nevertheless, those associated with the legal opinions and their surrounding policies should be aware that there is case law from Nuremberg that suggests that lawyers and policymakers can be criminally liable for the advice they have given and the decisions they have taken. […]
The possibility cannot be excluded that the Pinochet precedent will come back to haunt Addington, Yoo and others in the Bush administration. International law is not just for other people in other countries. Ignoring it will not be cost-free, including worries about foreign travel, as former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori learned last week when he was taken into custody in Chile.
Maybe this will ultimately be the way the administration is made accountable.

Second point.

Not to take anything away from Cenk Uygur's excellent post on torture, below, but I have to say that when I read it I was a bit dubious about his claim that we never tortured Nazis.

We tend to idealize World War II, which is a mistake.

Now, according to the Guardian we discover that we did torture Nazis (at least if you define "we" as the Allied forces):
The British government operated a secret torture centre during the second world war to extract information and confessions from German prisoners, according to official papers which have been unearthed by the Guardian.
More than 3,000 prisoners passed through the centre, where many were systematically beaten, deprived of sleep, forced to stand still for more than 24 hours at a time and threatened with execution or unnecessary surgery.
Some are also alleged to have been starved and subjected to extremes of temperature in specially built showers, while others later complained that they had been threatened with electric shock torture or menaced by interrogators brandishing red-hot pokers.
The centre, which was housed in a row of mansions in one of London's most affluent neighbourhoods, was carefully concealed from the Red Cross, the papers show. It continued to operate for three years after the war, during which time a number of German civilians were also tortured.
I just wanted to get that straightened away fro the record.

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