Bin Laden is dead. Torture is still wrong.

As US President Barack Obama enjoys the bump in his approval rating following the death of Osama Bin Laden, his Republican counterparts are clamouring for a piece of the credit and in doing so, they have rekindled the debate over whether the use of harsh interrogation techniques (or torture, to most of us) is justified.

Former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, is among the high-profile Republicans spouting the pro-torture rhetoric and, in the process, giving undue credit to the Bush Administration for the killing of Osama Bin Laden. On Fox News Mr. Rumsfeld said, “anyone who suggests that the enhanced techniques, let’s be blunt – waterboarding – did not produce an enormous amount of valuable intelligence just isn’t facing the truth.” While former US Vice President Dick Cheney echoed, “the enhanced interrogation programme played a role. That is to say that some of the early leads [for catching Bin Laden] came out of that programme.” (I guess that I should not be surprised that those who are now seeking to show that torture is justifiable are suspiciously congruous with the names and signatures that appear on all of those “enhanced interrogation” memos that went around the during the Bush administration). The information in question is namely that the identification of Bin Laden’s trusted courier (who indeed led the US to Bin Laden’s Abbottabad residence), which has been alleged to have come from the interrogation of Khalid Sheik Mohommad.

An “ends justify the means” type of argument is what appears to have been raised by those significant figures quoted above. But, let’s get our facts straight here. Khalid Sheik Mohommad was waterboarded 183 times and at no time did he confirm who Bin Laden’s courier was or supply any other useful information. In fact, he lied and denied existence of the courier. And, anyone who knows anything about interrogation will tell you that no useful information is ever obtained through torture, it simply does not work. In the words of Senator John McCain, “…under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading.”

Torture is also a terrible practice from the point of view of simple humanity. It devalues the life of the individual being tortured, not to mention the individual who has been commanded to perform such an act, and places our own troops in additional danger if they are captured. It would be hard to see how al Qaeda operatives could decide to follow the principles of humanity outlined by international humanitarian law if the US army isn’t playing by those rules either. There simply would not be any incentive to treat enemy prisoners humanely.

Torture is prohibited (absolutely) by international human rights law and customary international law. There is no way around this. No excuses can be provided. It is not sufficient to say that there is a war on terror being conducted and you need to get the information any way possible. The prohibition of torture is absolute and is never permissible. You can change the name and call it “enhanced interrogation”, but the legal result is still the same.

So, we have established (1) that torture does not work, (2) that it harms not only the individual being tortured, but those administering the treatment, and (3) it is illegal and recognised as such by every state of the international community. Is there anything left to debate about?

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