Academic journal article Human Rights & Human Welfare

The Ethics of Torture

Academic journal article Human Rights & Human Welfare

The Ethics of Torture

Article excerpt


Torture: Does It Make Us Safer? Is It Ever OK? A Human Rights Perspective. Edited by Kenneth Roth and Mindy Worden. New York: The New Press, 2005. 201 pp.

Torture has once again become a timely topic. The "War on Terror" launched after September 11, 2001 has renewed a philosophical and political debate, in the United States and elsewhere, about whether torture is ever justified. The basic parameters of this debate revolve around the question whether there should be an absolute prohibition against torture or whether, under carefully specified circumstances, it is a lesser evil to torture a suspect for information to prevent a greater evil that menaces society.

A position of moral absolutism holds that individuals must "do things only when they are right" rather than calculating the consequences of their actions (Nye 2005: 21). Such a perspective condemns torture as an unacceptable practice, arguing that torture and related abuses should be absolutely banned because they are

   antithetical to the entire concept of human rights. Rights define
   the limits beyond which no government should venture. To breach
   those limits in the name of some utilitarian calculus is to come
   dangerously close to the ends-justify-the-means rationale of
   terrorism. By contrast, a society that rejects torture affirms the
   essential dignity and humanity of each individual (xiii).

Torture is morally unjustified, therefore, because it "dehumanizes people by treating them as pawns to be manipulated through their pain" (xii).

This perspective is reflected in the absolute moral imperatives laid out in various international conventions. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates, in unqualified terms, that "no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" (Article 5). The Geneva Conventions of 1949 not only provide protection for enemy combatants and civilians but also instruct that unlawful combatants must be "treated with humanity and ... shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial" (Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 5). The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibits torture even "during public emergencies that threaten the life of the nation" (Articles 4 and 7). Similarly, the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment insists that "no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability of any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture" (Article 2).

Yet, despite these unconditional prohibitions, torture persists. Countries that have ratified treaties outlawing torture are in some cases actually more likely to use torture than countries which have not joined such international conventions (Hathaway 2004: 201-202). Although despotic and totalitarian regimes are the worst offenders, these are not the only kinds of regimes which find it expedient to use torture from time to time. Despite their support for human rights and rule of law, democratic countries have also adopted repressive policies, especially in times of perceived insecurity (Forsythe 2006: 467). Given the gap between rhetoric and reality, some scholars have called for a more pragmatic approach, arguing that the use of torture should be regulated rather than proscribed. Alan Dershowitz maintains that the better question to ask is whether torture should be allowed to continue "below the radar screen, without political accountability" or whether to require authorization from top political or judicial leaders as a precondition to the infliction of any type of torture. From Dershowitz's perspective, torture will inevitably occur, so a more "realistic" emphasis on accountability is important for reducing hypocrisy and minimizing the occurrence of torture (Dershowitz 2004: 259, 266-267). …

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