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Torture: the ultimate abuse of human rights?


In what has now become a regular yearly event, the Centre for Human Rights at the London School of Economics (LSE) and the ICRC on 11 May 2005 organized a public panel discussion on a topical issue linked to international humanitarian law and human rights law.

In the wake of British soldiers being prosecuted for the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees and extensive British media coverage of the cases of British detainees recently released from Guantanamo Bay, " Torture: the ultimate abuse of human rights? " was chosen as the title for the debate.

The Convention against Torture was signed twenty years ago; yet, discussing the so-called global war on terror, some commentators have recently put forward what is known as " the ticking bomb " argument to justify the use of physical pressure during the interrogation of suspects.

They argue in favour of the limited use of ill-treatment on suspects to extract information that could prevent a serious and imminent terrorist or criminal act.

This theory is plagued with questions, such as: how certain must one be that the suspect has information about the'ticking bomb'before justifying the use of ill-treatment? How dangerous does the'ticking bomb'have to be before ill-treatment can be used? Finally, even if ill-treatment in limited cases could yield success, would its use not seriously erode its overall prohibition?

The debate about torture also touches on a number of more fundamental questions: Is there something inescapably brutal about the human condition that makes the use of torture inevitable? Why is torture so frequently resorted to, despite the unequivocal nature of its legal prohibition and the near-universal agreement on its immorality? Even if torture is always wrong, are some forms of ill-treatment that fall short of torture nevertheless justifiable in the fight against terrorism?

Professor Conor Gearty of the LSE Human Rights Centre introduced the well known BBC journalist, Lyse Doucet, who chaired the event. Introducing the debate, she alluded to arguments put forward by some American law professors in favour of a legal framework that would allow the use of torture in specific cases.

The four speakers then presented their views on:

  • the legal background to the development of international legislation prohibiting torture (Sir Nigel Rodley, Professor of Law at Essex University and a former UN Special Rapporteur on torture)

  • the ethical issues and the dimension of individual responsibility raised by the argument in favour of the use of duress to obtain information from detainees in order to enhance public safety (Chris Brown, Professor of International Relations at the LSE),

  • the legal aspects of detention at Guantanamo Bay and the renditions of detainees to third countries where they might suffer ill-treatment (Victoria Brittain, journalist and co-author of a theatre play about Guantanamo Bay),

  • the challenge of defining what constitutes torture and the ICRC's experience of the impact of torture on detainees (Alain Aeschlimann, Head of the Central Tracing Agency and Protection Division at the ICRC).

The presentations were followed by a lively debate between the audience and the panel which confirmed the majority view of torture as abhorrent and served to underline the importance of the ICRC's visits to places of detention worldwide.

Resumes of the participants and transcripts of their contributions can be consulted on LSE website