Justifying cruelty: how a hard look at torture is avoided

NO government admits it. Most constitutions forbid it. But the world is experiencing a torture epidemic. Torture can be tracked today in nearly a hundred countries. All you have to do is pay heed to the incredible accounts coming out in the trials in Argentina to see how deep and wide the cruelty has become.

Amnesty International battles that monster; sometimes we win. Currently in America we are concentrating on moving the United States government to use its influence with other governments to get them to stop torturing. As we move into political influence in Washington, the best bet is to stay simple and not to get lost in the traps the perverted forms of political ``realism'' can lay for us. Such as:

The progress trap. If the US government makes foreign aid contingent on a nation's human rights performance, how is that performance to be judged? What mode of judgment will work -- in the real world -- to end abuses?

An obvious, real-world criterion would be to assess whether the nation's performance is getting better. If the nation's human rights record is improving, the aid will continue; if not, it will be cut down or cut off. Like certain forms of welfare policy at home, progress-linked foreign aid policies would provide an incentive for nations to clean up their act.

But the trap is also obvious. Putting aside the many ways governments can play with numbers, what constitutes progress? In one country, the US was asked to continue and increase aid because, in a given period, death- squad murders declined from the thousands to the hundreds. Was that supportable ``progress''? What if the Soviet Union were to release Andrei Sakharov tomorrow -- should that good news constitute ``progress'' justifying a more generous economic policy by the US? We must not accept ``progres s'' in this sense as satisfactory. That would be like letting a murderer keep it up because he had been murdering fewer lately.

The US position should, I think, be clear and simple: Not one penny of the American taxpayer's money should contribute to a government which practices torture.

The cultural relativity trap. Twentieth-century anthropology brought home a useful observation: People live differently, not just as deviants from a Western norm, but in a rich variety of multidimensional cultural patterns. The liberal lesson is, judge not that ye be not judged; various cultures have their own dignity, their own integrity, their own respect-worthy differences from the American Way of Life. In policy terms, generally we should let them be as they want to be.

How does that relate to torture? Well, the argument goes, in some cultures they think it more just to flog a man in public than to lock him up for five or 10 years. In other cultures, what we call torture is to them nothing more than behavior modification or the treatment of mental illness by aversive conditioning. In short, cultures differ widely in the value they place on human life and the compassion they feel toward victims of torture. They let us be, we let them be.

To destroy this line of sophistry requires but a moment's reflection on the meaning of what Tom Paine called ``The Rights of Man.'' Rights in the human rights tradition reside in individuals, not cultures or groups. We assert the fundamental dignity of the person, not the clan. The doctrine of the American revolution declared men (read: persons), not cultures or ethnic enclaves, equal and possessed of rights, and applied those attributes to all human beings, not those in the ne ighborhood. The longstandingness of tyranny is no excuse for its existence one more day.

The blame trap. Intellectuals are notably prone to believe that when they have said something they have done something. Analysis can paralyze action, but it can also, curiously, substitute for action. Consider the allocation of blame for torture. Is torture worse in the Soviet Union or in South Africa? Then: Is torture by communists worse than torture of communists? Is ``authoritarian'' torture or ``totalitarian'' torture worse?

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.

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Justifying cruelty: how a hard look at torture is avoided
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today