Justifying cruelty: how a hard look at torture is avoided
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The trouble with these delicate moral distinctions is that they contribute nothing to effective action to stop torture. In this field, merely moral comparisons are truly odious, for they distract attention and energy away from effective work to stop torture.Skip to next paragraph
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The prerequisites trap. The logic that prerequisites must be accomplished before torture can be abolished goes like this: Governments torture for a reason. The major reason is their insecurity: Under strong threat of invasion, revolution, or coup, the government's first concern must be to establish order, upon which all human rights depend. Thus it is crucial first to strengthen the national military and police forces, even if they are at present deeply involved in torture. Once order is firm, the milit ary can be reformed. But order depends not only on military control, but also upon economic conditions.
Domestic revolution springs from economic injustice. Therefore, if one is really interested in abolishing torture, one will begin by patiently and systematically working to stabilize the economy and establish civil peace. Then it will be possible to start the process of dismantling the torture system. From ancient slave rebellions to the women's movement of today, demanders of their rights have again and again been handed a plateful of sometime when they asked for a serving of now. Beyond i ts stone-hearted immorality, the prerequisites argument vastly exaggerates the calculability of politics.
Believers in ``prerequisites'' need to ask themselves: Can a regime whose subjects hate it effectively recruit popular support for social reform? Do revolutionary forces in a nation lose or gain recruits when the government unleashes a new wave of brutality? Does a nation's international reputation as a vicious represser of the rights of millions enhance or detract from its ability to lure foreign investment?
These questions answer themselves -- and there is no shortage of examples directly evidential to each. Empirically speaking, the fact is that torture has been stopped -- in Greece, in Argentina, in Brazil, and elsewhere -- but that the sociopolitical conditions for that advance have varied widely.
The democracy trap. Critics of the hman rights movement often say we are looking in the wrong place. The problem is not torture, but economic exploitation, or famine, or inhuman ideologies, or the lassitude of the church, etc. The sophisticated version is procedural: We should not treat the symptom (torture) but the cause (dictatorship). The cure for torture is democracy.
The great majority of human rights advocates are advocates of political democracy. But to suppose that the latter guarantees the former is to fly in the face of common sense. Today the representative national legislature of the Philippines has been unable to restrain the Marcos regime from daily torture in the jails and camps. Those who think a free election in Iran or Cuba today would topple those tyrannies are dreaming; elections might well make those regimes even more repressive.
In short, genuine democracy is far more than a set of mechanical processes of decisionmaking. Democracy is a structure -- but also, and essentially, a culture, in which structures are there to implement human rights, not to substitute for or replace them. It is important that the US stand forth in the world as the champion of ``political rights.'' It is as important that this nation, founded on human rights, stand forth to insist that whatever the political machinery, its result must be ``life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness.''
Excerpted from the Amnesty International USA annual general meeting address by James David Barber, chairman of the board of directors, AIUSA.