The ex-president of the USA, George Bush has recently published an autobiography in which he supposedly claims that waterboarding is not torture and that it is perfectly legal under US law.
Well, that tells us a lot about the morality of US politicians doesn’t it ?
Waterboarding is an interrogation technique involving pouring water over a subject’s face in a manner designed to simulate drowning. Even ignoring the torture question, it is probably illegal under international law because it is effectively a mock execution. However most commentators (including the apologists) concentrate on the torture aspect of waterboarding. Torture is an interrogation technique utilising pain or terror to solicit responses that the interrogator wants, or more precisely :-
Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
(Article 1 from the UN Convention Against Torture)
Note the word mental that appears in article 1, and recall that waterboarding can effectively be described as a mock execution as the subject can feel like he or she is drowning. Whether or not there is severe pain involved (and there are plenty including people who have undergone waterboarding who say it does), waterboarding seems to me to meet the criteria to count as torture. Even if it is a borderline thing, wise people stay well clear of things on the verge of being illegal and immoral.
If all this theorising is beginning to bore you, look at some of the other organisations who have used waterboarding in the past – the Spanish Inquisition, the Gestapo, and the Khmer Rouge. None of which most US citizens would like their government to be associated in any way.
But perhaps these were exceptional circumstances. After all Bush did claim that information obtained under torture saved countless lives in both the US and Britain. Does that justify the use of torture ? Well no it doesn’t – article 2 of the UNCAT states that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever” justifies the use of torture.
People may say that the three prisoners who were tortured were very evil people. Well the way to determine whether torture is right or wrong is not to look at the most evil possible victims, but to look at how you would feel about yourself or your closest loved one being tortured for information they do not have. And yes that sort of thing can, has, and does happen under a regime that supports the use of torture.
Bush claims that US law permitted waterboarding because it wasn’t quite torture. Well US law was wrong then. Don’t forget that the US is has signed and ratified both the UNCAT and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which also prohibits torture but doesn’t go into detail).
Interestingly this means that Mr Bush may well be subject to arrest and trial anywhere in the world as torture as a crime is subject to universal jurisdiction.