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Torture: memory, impunity, interrogation

Crossing the Boundaries: the place of human rights in contemporary scholarship
Afternoon panel session:

Chair: Professor Stan Cohen
Speakers:  
Dr Cath Collins The politics of memorials - torture and the visual landscape|
Mr Philip Rumney The effectiveness of coercive interrogation|
Professor Michael Welch Torture in a post 9/11 world: exploring the forces and sources of a culture of impunity|

Dr Cath Collins
The politics of memorials - torture and the visual landscape

What are the politics of torture?

How are personal experiences of extreme physical pain, trauma and survival, betrayal and solidarity replayed and interpreted at the level of the body politic?

In the short term, former places of torture are often abandoned or obliterated, considered as unspeakable or shameful as the events that took place within them. But such places have also been subject to efforts at preservation or recuperation, motivated variously by the desire to commemorate, admonish, warn or educate.

Latin America's 'dirty wars' made torture part of the urban landscape, bringing concentration camp practices into the heart of cities. The logic of state terror required that neighbours, and the population at large, simultaneously know and not know what was taking place in the otherwise unremarkable houses, industrial premises and workshops which were commandeered as clandestine detention centres. Thousands passed through them, and many subsequently disappeared.

After transition, Latin American societies have had to decide whether and how to mark the recent past in the geography and urban landscape of the present. Recuperation can be a fraught and contested political process, particularly where authorities have not yet or not fully acknowledged and repudiated the torture which occurred. Authorities, survivors, lawyers, architects and even perpetrators become locked in a struggle for the reclaiming and redefinition of public and private spaces. This paper will explore the recent emergence of public commemorative space in Chile, with particular reference to successful efforts to turn Villa Grimaldi, a former clandestine torture centre, into a park for peace. The initiative represents the first successful requisitioning and rehabilitation of a former torture centre in Latin America.

The paper, based on a visual presentation and interview data, turns a political science analysis onto contributions from art, architecture and testimonial literature. It asks who is acting to preserve and transform the site and what institutional and political obstacles have had to be surmounted. Finally, the paper considers how the Villa Grimaldi initiative overlaps with recent actions seeking to revive questions of criminal responsibility through prosecution of perpetrators in the Chilean courts.

Mr Philip Rumney
The effectiveness of coercive interrogation

In his 2002 book Why Terrorism Works, Professor Alan M. Dershowitz suggested that there might be a case for the use of judicially authorised warrants that would allow authorities to use non-lethal torture against terrorist suspects, as a 'last resort' in order to save the lives of people in imminent danger. Since then, a growing number of scholars have considered the efficacy of torture in such circumstances. Indeed, Posner and Vermeule recently argued that: '[a]mong legal academics, a near consensus has emerged: coercive interrogation must be kept "illegal," but nonetheless permitted in certain circumstances.'[1]| Thus far, much of the scholarly discussion has been concerned with the procedural, legal and philosophical issues raised by coercion. Only limited attention has been given to the issue of effectiveness. Those who have explored the use of coercion as a tool of interrogation appear convinced that it works. For example, Bagaric and Clarke claim that: '[t]he main benefit of torture is that it is an excellent means of gathering information'[2]| and Dershowitz claims that torture 'sometimes works, even if it does not always work' (emphasis in original) and that 'there are numerous instances in which torture has produced self-proving, truthful information that was necessary to prevent harm to civilians.'[3]|

This paper will consider a key issue: does coercive interrogation work in producing timely, reliable, life-saving information? In order to answer this question it is necessary to consider evidence from a range of disciplines including law, history and psychology. This evidence suggests that there are individual instances when coercion does produce timely, reliable information. However, such an inter-disciplinary analysis also suggests that the problems associated with the use of coercive interrogation render it largely ineffective.[4]| These understandings have been largely ignored by the current scholarly discussion of coercive interrogation within the United States and elsewhere. The purpose of this paper is to explore these wider understandings of coercive interrogation in order to better inform the current debate and its 'near consensus.' To some, the discussion of coercive interrogation runs the risk of legitimising its use. It is imperative, however, that those who are concerned with human rights and wish to maintain the current legal prohibition on torture, engage with the current debate on its use. It is through a rational inter-disciplinary analysis that the arguments in favour of a legally sanctioned system of coercive interrogation can be successfully challenged.

Professor Michael Welch
Torture in a post 9/11 world: exploring the forces and sources of a culture of impunity

As an emerging form of policy, torture has become a highly controversial feature in the war on terror. Indeed, it is not uncommon for even some American liberals to advocate the legalization of torture as a tactic needed to extract intelligence on terrorism. Whereas much of the recent knowledge concerning torture focuses on documenting and verifying patterns of detainee abuse, there lacks a broader sociological foundation for understanding that particular form of human rights violation in a post-9/11 world. In bridging the gap, this work draws on key social, political, and economic developments that contribute to the contemporary use of torture. Moreover, it concentrates on a culture of impunity that diminishes accountability for high-ranking political and military officials implicated in torture and the abuse of prisoners.

In the first segment of the work, policies and practices in the war on terror are viewed as being derived from American imperialism, producing distinct forms of state crime and human rights abuses (i.e., torture and the invasion of Iraq). The role of neo-conservative planning for political, economic, and military affairs is discussed, especially in the wake of September 11th, The second portion of the paper explores the Foucauldian notion of counter-law, or "laws against law", whereby new legal transformations coupled with civil and administrative inventions are established by the state as a means to erode traditional criminal law and due process. Recent attempts by the Bush administration to rewrite the standard definition of torture and create an unlawful enemy combatant designation are imbued with counter-law.

Other developments contributing to a culture of impunity involve the fragmentation of authority in which the state outsources military and interrogation tactics, thereby evading accountability. Rhetorical justification for each of these elements of impunity is examined in light of systematic forms of denial that serve to keep atrocities from being fully recognized. Finally, implications for multidisciplinary human rights scholarship are addressed as they pertain to political discourse aimed at comprehending the role of power in constructing international law. This paper sets out to contribute the expanding dialogue on human rights by offering a multi-layered and multi-conceptual view of torture and various forms of prisoner abuse.


[1]| Eric A. Posner and Adrian Vermeule, Should Coercive Interrogation Be Legal? University of Chicago Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper No. 84, 2 (2005).
[2]| Mirko Bagaric and Julie Clarke, 'Not Enough Official Torture in the World? The Circumstances in Which Torture Is Morally Justifiable,' (2005) 39 University of San Francisco Law Review 581, 588-589.
[3]| Alan M. Dershowitz, Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the threat, responding to the challenge 137 (2002).
[4]| For detailed discussion, see: Philip N.S. Rumney, 'The Effectiveness of Coercive Interrogation: A Reply to Bagaric and Clarke,' [2006] 40 University of San Francisco Law Review (forthcoming).
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