Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why has "torture" become a truism?

OK, I've had just about as much as I can take of reading and hearing news outlets talking about Binyam Mohamed being tortured, or that Britain was complicit in torture, after the release of some paragraphs about his interrogation. The final paragraph states,
The treatment reported, if had been administered on behalf of the United Kingdom, would clearly have been in breach of the undertakings given by the United Kingdom in 1972. Although it is not necessary for us to categorise the treatment reported, it could readily be contended to be at the very least cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the United States authorities
What were those "undertakings" it mentioned? Well it refers specifically to what are known as the "five techniques" of interrogation that were used in Operation Demetrius, also known as internment, in Northern Ireland. In 1972, the Parker Report found that the techniques were illegal in UK law, and the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, gave an undertaking that the UK would not use them anymore.

The techniques of wall-standing, hooding, subjection to noise, deprivation of sleep, and deprivation of food and drink, were then put to the European Court of Human Rights in the case of "Ireland v. the United Kingdom", and, in 1978, it ruled that the techniques,

"did not occasion suffering of the particular intensity and cruelty implied by the word torture ... [but] amounted to a practice of inhuman and degrading treatment"
That is what the paragraph is referring to in the case of Binyam Mohamed when it says he was subjected to treatment that was "inhuman and degrading". Binyam Mohamed was treated in a way that the UK said it would not engage in, but the way he was treated was not torture.

This legal definitional difference appears to have been lost in the reporting and we have now just slid into saying he was tortured anyway. Take the Guardian editorial this morning as just a quick example, it says,

Binyam Mohamed, who (no one now disputes) was tortured with the knowledge of the US authorities.
See? It's now a truism that he was tortured even though what he was subjected too has been tested in the ECHR and been judged not to equate to the "particular intensity and cruelty implied by the word torture".

You might not like what happened to Binyam Mohamed - although its worth noting that Britain trains its Special Forces to be prepared for these techniques - but calling it "torture" is inaccurate no matter how many times it is repeated.

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