Pervez Musharraf’s talk of ‘tacit approval’ reminds us of the trail linking distant torture chambers to the heart of our governments
The admission by Pervez Musharraf, the former Pakistan president, of British complicity in torture on BBC2′s The Secret War on Terror should not surprise anyone. What is more disheartening is the prospect that authorities remain complicit in torture despite the denials and all that has happened over the past 10 years.
But perhaps that should not be surprising. Over the weekend, senior US state department spokesperson Phillip Crowley was forced to resign for saying the treatment of alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning was“ridiculous… counterproductive and stupid”. His comments came afterManning claimed to be stripped naked and forced to parade in front of his guards and placed on ‘punitive’ suicide watch.
President Obama has backtracked on one of the first promises of his tenure. When he approved the continuation of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp this month, despite an earlier promise to close the controversial facility within a year of coming to office, Obama effectively endorsed the inhumane and degrading treatment of 172 terrorism suspects that must surely be tantamount to torture. In Afghanistan, an even larger detention centre at Bagram airbase, known as the “New Guantánamo”, was touted as an alternative to the Cuban naval base. Now it appears both will be in continuous operation into the foreseeable future.
Bagram and Guantánamo are only two parts of an international network of detention facilities across the globe where western governments can escape the prying checks and balances that ought to be the measure of any civilised society.
Like the earlier claims within elite circles to have been fooled by Tony Blair’s dossier and the invasion of Iraq, assertions by British intelligence authorities that they did not know terrorism suspects would be tortured in Pakistan must be met with extreme scepticism.
Successive prime ministers have been happy to describe Pakistan as the centre of global terrorism, but it has also been a centre for western outsourcing of torture. For years, Amnesty International and several other rights groups have reported on the widespread use of torture at all levels of Pakistan’s law enforcement and security authorities, in neighbouring Afghanistan, and in every one of the countries used as rendition sites by Britain and the US. Officials in Whitehall cannot plead ignorance of this reality.
When British torture victim Binyam Mohammad revealed he was strung upside down and beaten with a strap after being sent to Pakistan by British intelligence, it should have immediately resonated with reports of the treatment of thousands of Pakistanis held in secret detention by their intelligence agencies.
“Never once,” said Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s leader for the first seven years after the September 11 attacks, did British authorities tell him not to torture terrorism suspects. He argues that the silence was tantamount to “tacit approval” of what Pakistan security authorities were doing.
In last night’s programme, former CIA chief Michael Hayden justified the use of waterboarding on terrorism suspects, as one of the “heroic choices” that unearthed a “treasure trove” of information.
One of the oldest devices used to conceal abuse is to clothe them in the language of necessary precaution. The eternal argument in favour of torture in secret detention facilities is that our world is a dangerous place and that extraordinary measures must be taken to maintain our safety.
But torture is an unreliable method for obtaining information on suspected terrorists. Study after study has shown that victims of torture will tell their tormentors whatever they want to hear to end their ordeal. Moreover, victims of torture are often so mentally and physically injuredby the experience that their value as witnesses is irreparably damaged, a key reason for the difficulty in convicting alleged terrorists the world over. Most important of all, torture and other abuse in detention is a moral aberration. Our support or involvement in these practices effectively signals that there is no distinction between us and the enemies we rightly describe as extremists.
Last year MI6′s Sir John Sawers arrogantly proclaimed that torture was not an abstract question “for philosophy courses or searching editorials”, but “real, constant, operational dilemmas”. Ironically, it is proponents of torture who are most liable to drift to abstractions and hypothetical scenarios to justify abuses such as waterboarding that destroy real lives and condemn democratic, plural societies like Britain to the scorn usually reserved for the most repressive regimes. Officials like Sawers use equally esoteric bureaucratic hurdles to maintain plausible deniability over their complicity in torture.
The detainee inquiry set up by David Cameron’s government is a welcome development. But it has regrettably stated that it is not obliged to comply with international and European standards of human rights. Last month Amnesty International and eight other organisations called on the British government to, among other things, ensure that the inquiry has a mechanism to independently decide what evidence should be made public, and powers to compel evidence.
“And this also has been one of the dark places of the Earth,” says Conrad’s protagonist in Heart of Darkness as he travels down the river Thames. And just as we learn in that cautionary tale, a sordid dark trail still links distant torture chambers to the heart of our governments. Unless and until that link is broken, and all individuals guilty of or complicit in torture are brought to justice, we cannot hope to keep our societies truly safe.
[This article first appeared in The Guardian on March 15, 2011: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2011/mar/15/torture-pervez-musharraf-tacit-approval]