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Torture - 1970s Northern Ireland; 21st century world

There’s a debate under way (I’ve joined in myself) over at the BBC NI-hosted blog, Will and Testament , about torture, the CIA and why “good people turn evil”.

The debate is prompted by a book, interview and slideshow (horrific pictures of abuse from the US era in charge of Abu Ghraib – viewer discretion advised) by Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo. Follow the links for the background and the debate.

Suffice it to say that the fight against the use of torture is sadly, yet again, one of the debates of our time.

Many in Amnesty thought that we had fought and largely won this argument back in the seventies and eighties when we led a sustained and successful campaign which resulted in the UN Convention against Torture.

In 1973 the UN General Assembly approved an Amnesty resolution denouncing torture and two years later the UN unanimously adopted a declaration against torture following Amnesty campaign.

By 1984 the UN Convention against Torture was adopted and finally came into force three years later. To date, 142 nations are parties to it, with another nine having signed but not yet ratified.

Job done? Of course not.

During the same period, the use of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment continued apace throughout the world – including here in Northern Ireland.

In the seventies, Amnesty helped to expose the use of the infamous “five techniques” used here in security force interrogations of terrorist suspects: (1) hooding, (2) wall-standing, (3) subjection to noise, (4) relative deprivation of food and water and (5) sleep deprivation. (Techniques, let us not forget, now being rolled out as part of the global “war on terror”.)

For illustration purposes let me quote Tom Parker, a fellow at Brown University, and a counter-terrorism expert, who describes just one of the techniques as used in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s: 
       “Subjection to noise meant placing the prisoner in close proximity to the monotonous whine of machinery, such as a generator or compressor, for as long as six or seven days. At least one prisoner subjected to this treatment told Amnesty International that having been driven to the brink of insanity by the noise, he had tried to commit suicide by banging his head against metal piping in his cell.”

In 1977 the European Court of Human Rights found the UK government guilty of the use of these “cruel, inhuman and degrading” methods of interrogation in Northern Ireland.

At the time, presumably, the UK’s forces (and political leaders) thought the approach worthwhile and even necessary in their local “war on terror”.

However, subsequently, former British intelligence officer Frank Steele told the journalist Peter Taylor:

       "As for the special interrogation techniques, they were damned stupid as well as morally wrong … in practical terms, the additional usable intelligence they produced was, I understand, minimal.”

Three decades on, the debate is just a relevant and the global consequences even more deadly than in the days of car bombs and teenage kicks in Northern Ireland.

The Zimbardo experiments and the Abu Ghraib scandal might lead some to think that prisoner torture is mostly a case of good people carrying out deviant acts of evil in extraordinary and stressful circumstances.

But the abuses carried out in the 1970s in the cells of Palace Barracks in Holywood or Girdwood Barracks in Belfast cannot be explained away as aberrant behaviour by otherwise good people. What happened there – as happened in Abu Ghraib under Saddam and under Bush – were the actions of agents of the State carrying out the orders of the State.

These “interrogation in depth” techniques were not invented in or for Northern Ireland and had been used before in British colonies and dominions like Kenya, Cyprus, Palestine, Aden, British Cameroon and Malaya

Lord Gardiner in his minority report to the UK government in March 1972, put it pretty well:
        “The blame for this sorry story, if blame there be, must lie with those who, many years ago, decided that in emergency conditions in Colonial-type situations we should abandon our legal, well-tried and highly successful wartime interrogation methods and replace them by procedures which were secret, illegal, not morally justifiable and alien to the traditions of what I believe still to be the greatest democracy in the world.”

His words have real resonance and relevance in 2008, including for today’s UK government which appears to have few qualms over its allies' behaviour.

Until people in democratic countries such as our own demand that their States have no hand in such acts of torture, they will continue to be ordered when leaders of those States feel threatened.

If the moral and legal arguments against torture are insufficient for some politicians, perhaps the counter-productivity of torture (in terms of alienating those communities whose support is necessary to defeat terrorism) might be an alternative argument. Any short-term gains (whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere) are more than offset by long-term failures.

Human rights campaigners – and others – have a duty to make the arguments and to persuade the public, again and again, that resort to torture is a degradation of the values most of us hold dear … and makes us no safer in our beds or on our buses.

You can join Amnesty’s campaign to stop torture here.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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