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Torture: the ultimate abuse of human rights?

 in association with the International Committee of the Red Cross

Speakers: Alain Aeschlimann, Victoria Brittain, Professor Chris Brown, Sir Nigel Rodley
Moderator: Lyse Doucet, BBC World
May 2005

Download the transcript of the event (PDF)


Torture is a topic that never quite goes away, and in recent years it has returned with gusto to the centre of the political and ethical stage. Members of both the US and British forces stand convicted of serious crimes against captives in their charge and allegations of systematic torture continue to be made. Is there something inescapably brutal about the human condition that torture survives as an instrument of policy? Why is torture so frequently resorted to, despite the unequivocal nature of its legal prohibition and the alleged clarity of its immorality? Just over twenty years after the Convention against torture was signed, on Human Rights Day 1984, how can this most basic of abuses finally be eradicated? Even if torture is always wrong, are some forms of ill-treatment falling short of torture that are nevertheless justifiable as a lesser evil in the fight against terror?

Alain Aeschlimann, a Swiss National, is a lawyer by training. He joined the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1987. In the field, his assignments have included long term missions in Iraq, Angola and Peru before his heading ICRC operations in Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian Occupied and Autonomous Territories, and Ethiopia.

Mr Aeschlimann was appointed Head of the Central Tracing Agency and Protection Division in 2003. By the mid-nineties, he had already been working at the ICRC Headquarters as Coordinator of Legal Advisors to the Operations and as Deputy Head of Detention Division, then Central Tracing Agency and Protection Division.

He has written articles in the International Review of the Red Cross, in particular on Reflections on a dissemination operation in Burundi Declaration for standard of humanitarian conduct: appeal for a minimum of humanity in a situation of internal violence (jointly with E Baeryswil) (August 1997) and 'Protection of detainees: ICRC action behind bars' (March 2005) and made several oral presentations in conferences and expert meetings as 'Overview of protection issues in contexts of multinational peace operations' (Report on the expert meeting on multinational peace operations, Geneva, December 2003).

Victoria Brittain has lived and worked as a journalist in Saigon, Algiers, Nairobi and Washington. She has reported extensively from many parts of the Third World for many publications in the UK and France. She worked at the Guardian for 20 years, most recently as Associate Foreign Editor. She has been a consultant for the UN and for DFiD. She is currently a Research Associate at the LSE. Last year she co-authored with Gillian Slovo the play, Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom which played in New York after London, is now in Sweden and soon opens in San Francisco, New Zealand, and other venues.

Chris Brown has published widely in classical and modern international political theory and international ethics. His most recent books are Sovereignty, Rights and Justice (Polity Press, 2002) and, co-edited with Terry Nardin and N J Rengger, International Relations in Political Thought: Texts from the Greeks to the First World War (Cambridge UP, 2002).After teaching at the University of Kent, and holding the Chair of Politics at Southampton University, he was appointed to a Professorship in International Relations at the London School of Economics in 1999.He was Chair of the British International Studies Association in 1998/99, and has served on the Governing Council and Executive Committee of the ISA.

Nigel Rodley acted as the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture from 1993 to 2001 and is currently a member of the UN Human Rights Committee. He is also a Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists. He has worked at UN Headquarters in New York and was founding head of the legal office at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International. Professor Rodley has taught human rights and international law at the University of Essex since 1990. He has also taught at Dalhousie University, the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research (New York), and at the London School of Economics. He has published widely on human rights issues, focusing particularly on the treatment of prisoners and the prevention of torture. His works include The Treatment of Prisoners under International Law (1987, 1999); (ed) To Loose the Bands of Wickedness - International Intervention in Defence of Human Rights (1992); (with J I Domniguez, B Wood and R A Falk) Enchancing Global Human Rights (1979); (co-ed with C N Ronning) International Law in the Western Hemisphere (1974); (co-ed with Y Danieli and L Weisaeth) International Responses to Traumatic Stress (1995). Professor Rodley was awarded a knighthood in 1998 in recognition of his services to human rights and international law.