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A torturous debate over rights

The argument against torture is one of human rights. Can we bend our conception of human dignity to accommodate the demands of wartime and the fight against terror? Vir Sanghvi examines...

columns Updated: Aug 30, 2009 11:28 IST

Here is a hypothetical question. You are the head of a counter-terrorist force in Bombay. It is 26/11. Terrorists are spreading havoc in the city. You don’t know how many of them there are or what they are planning. But thanks to the sacrifices of a few brave policemen, Ajmal Kasab arrives in your custody.

You ask him where his fellow terrorists are and what they have planned. He laughs in your face.

What do you now do? These are your options:

a) You advise him of his rights and let him phone his lawyer.

b) You settle down for a sustained interrogation knowing that eventually he will slip up and reveal something.

c) You pull out his fingernails till he tells you exactly how many terrorists there are, what locations have been targeted and where their orders are coming from.

I would imagine that the majority of Indians would go for (c). It’s not that we are animals or that we enjoy torturing people, but at times like these, the priority is to save lives, not to worry about the rights of a terrorist.

My guess is that in a similar situation, most Americans would also agree. The premise of the popular TV series 24 is that torture is allowed when time is short and there are lives to be saved.

But now, Americans are asking questions about the way their government is using torture. Even 24 has had to acknowledge this debate. The last season opened with its hero Jack Bauer appearing before a Senate committee investigating his use of torture.

This week, reality followed TV. On Monday, President Barack Obama appointed a Special Investigator to inquire into allegations of torture by CIA officers and counterterrorism officials. Torture has now been banned and officers who tortured suspects might face action.

We now know that Americans routinely use torture — former Vice-President Dick Cheney even brags about it. The really heavy stuff is outsourced to allied secret services but the US military and the CIA have routinely waterboarded (making suspects feel they are drowning) prisoners and used other coercive methods.

Threats have been routinely employed. According to official documents, the CIA told one detainee that his mother would be raped before his eyes. Another was threatened with the murder of his children.

New methods of torture — including one that causes hypothermia in suspects — have been devised specially for the so-called War on Terror.

Worse still, it’s not even clear that the Americans are very good at this. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, one of the 9/11 masterminds, was tortured repeatedly but all that the CIA got out of him was information about ancient plots that failed. Nevertheless, they waterboarded him 185 times! Many suspects brag that they lied to interrogators to get them to stop the torture.

But the argument against torture is not one of efficiency. It’s one of human rights. Can we bend our conception of human dignity to accommodate the demands of wartime and the fight against terror?

Or are human rights a moral absolute?

Rights groups would argue that they have to be an absolute. Allow them to be compromised on one set of grounds and you will end up with a sliding scale where policemen keep lowering the requirement for the use of torture.

But here’s my question: do Western rights groups take this attitude only because it has been comfortable for them to do so — at least, till now?

Do they value the rights of suspects so much only because, till recently, the West had rarely faced the kind of threats that require the use of coercive methods to extract information?

For decades, the Indian government has inclined towards the position that such rights groups as Amnesty International were set up by the West as a way of pressuring the Soviet bloc and Third World countries.

Why, officials would ask, were rights groups relatively silent about the appalling human rights abuses committed by Americans during the Vietnam war? Why was so little heard about South America where America spent billions propping up every fingernail-pulling dictator who could help Uncle Sam?

I thought the Indian position was wrong but I could understand the indignation. The West has always adopted double standards on torture. The British go on about police brutality in India but every one of these Third Degree methods was introduced by the Brits when they ruled India.

Besides, when Britain has faced insurgencies or terrorist threats, it has cheerfully trampled on human rights. We know now that torture and encounters were common when the Brits were fighting the IRA.

It’s easy, say the cynics, to talk about the rights of suspects when you face no threat yourselves. It’s much more difficult to be as self-righteous when your own people are dying on the streets.

In many ways, the torture debate in America is as much about America as it is about torture. For decades, Americans have lectured the world about human rights and democracy while adopting different standards for their own country. (One instance: till the 60s, several states kept African Americans off the electoral rolls even as America was allegedly fighting for democracy abroad.)

Now, America finds itself in the situation that many other countries have had to face for decades. Could India have combated the militancy in Punjab with a strict respect for human rights? Can you really expect the Army in Kashmir to follow due process while dealing with each terrorist?

And how do you balance the possibility of saving hundreds of lives (our 26/11 example) with the human rights of a single terrorist?

There are no easy answers. As a liberal, I am opposed to encounters and horrified by the cavalier attitude displayed by our security services towards torture. But equally, I realise that the battle against terrorism often leaves policemen and soldiers with no choice but to sacrifice the human rights of terrorists.

America now has to confront the gulf between its rhetoric and its reality. For years, it has told its people that it believes in human rights while cheerfully adopting different standards out of public view. It has lectured the world about human dignity while following a different policy itself.

In the 21st century, and with the threat of terrorism against Americans greater than ever, it can no longer preach one thing and practise another. It needs to reconcile its contradictions.

And my guess is that American public opinion will respond to torture in exactly the same way that Indians have.