Last week, the US Department of Justice released a report on the legal framework that had governed the United States’ subsequent treatment of prisoners in the post-911 world. The US Government had hired lawyers to craft some justification for ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ of captured suspects, and said lawyers had performed their jobs with no small degree of legal creativity. The report was critical of the lawyers in question and their attempts at legal obfuscation.
The issue went to the one of the core dilemmas in the United States debate over torture: should the United States make its moral standing an important part of its decision-making process?
Many opponents of torture argued that engaging in such activities put the United States on the same moral plane as their enemies who seek to destroy them.
They argue that going down the torture path would irrevocably corrupt the soul of the nation. This is a somewhat melodramatic but essentially accurate depiction of their position.
Proponents of the status-quo argue that the ethic core of the nation has to give way to national security concerns. ‘We are at war so the rules of the game have changed’ they argue.
They see dwelling on morals and ethics as weak and unrealistic in times of war- in this case the war on terrorism. Of course the fact that this could be a perpetual war is a complication they are unwilling to face. If war is never-ending, then the moral compromises therein are never-ending too.
Another intriguing report caught my attention last week- this time not a government document but an academic paper.
The paper looked at Countries who had signed the International Convention on Torture and looked at whether signing and ratifying the convention had an effect on the Countries’ actual stance on torture and overall human rights record. They discovered that the opposite was true.
Governments which were notorious human rights abusers signed the convention with the full intention of ignoring them. The point of doing so was to put on a show of strength for opponents.
The twisted but sly logic behind this was to send a message that the Government in question could afford to risk the wrath of public opinion to carry on business as usual. Signing a convention against torture, perversely, becomes an interest to entrench torture.
Both items interested me because they go to the heart of one of the main dilemmas of international relations: Does a nation have a moral character that it should project?
It is not just the Americans who are worried about the moral core of their Nation of course. Most Countries to different degrees face this issue, but it is a complex one.
The Countries who signed the Torture convention as a way to entrench unethical and violent governance assume that moral concerns must inevitably give way to the ruthless nature of totalitarian government. They assume that projecting an ethical centre is a luxury or at best completely irrelevant to governance.
They might even argue that a Country is an amoral entity in much the same way that a corporation is, so talk of a ‘moral nation’ is a tricky affair.
This would be untenable because obviously a Government affects its citizens in many more ways than a corporation could ever dream of- for example they have the power to punish its’ citizens with the full force of the law.
Ultimately a nation does have a moral core in much the same way a person does. This moral core is an aggregation of the actions of both public and private actors. After all, it is not just Governments and public institutions that project the moral centre of a nation: the citizens as a bloc do the same thing, in both a cultural and a day-to-day framework.
In that sense, I think the Americans who are anti-torture have something in their favour: they recognize that a Country does have an ethical core.
Morality is never a luxury or an irrelevance. More importantly, they realize that this must be defended even in times of strife.
Minega Isibo is a lawyer