Wednesday, November 9, 2011

USA Africa Dialogue Series - Western Bias On Torture

Why are 'others' always guilty of torture?

Westerners are taught to believe "civilised" governments do not commit torture; that it's always "them" and never "us".
Last Modified: 08 Nov 2011 16:47
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Westerners are taught to believe that torture is not a practice of a 'civilised' government and therefore does not take place within their military and security establishments [GALLO/GETTY]

Following the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, new allegations have emerged about the complicity of British and US officials in torture.

Senior members of the new Libyan leadership claim to have been ill-treated after a joint CIA and MI6 operation to render them to Libyan jails. These are, of course, just the latest in a stream of stories about Anglo-American involvement in the torture of Arab and Muslim security suspects. However, whether or not the most recent allegations turn out to be true, it is highly unlikely that any US or British official will ever be charged, let alone convicted of torture.

Despite the events of the past ten years, no British citizen has ever stood in court accused of the crime of torture. In fact, the only person ever convicted of torture in a British court is a former Afghan asylum seeker - for acts he carried out in Afghanistan.

In 2005, Faryadi Zardad was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his involvement in what the judge called a "brutal regime of terror" at the checkpoints he controlled to the east of Kabul. Despite the pictures coming out of Abu Ghraib and the formal apologies given by the British government for the ill-treatment of Iraqi detainees, no charges of torture have ever been drawn up against a British citizen.

The only US citizen ever convicted of torture was the son of former Liberian president Charles Taylor, for acts he carried out as part of one of his father's militias.

Even when British and American soldiers have been convicted, it has been for "lesser" crimes, such as assault or dereliction of duty. For British and US officials, torture is something their citizens simply do not do. It is much easier to imagine that people from faraway places are guilty of such acts.

Iraqis, Moroccans, Sudanese and Indians can, in the British imagination, be guilty of torture, but never their own citizens.

Over the past 200 years, debates about torture have often been used to make a distinction between those who were felt to be civilised and those who are uncivilised. One of the justifications for British intervention in Sudan during the late 19th century, for example, was the prevention of torture by the Islamic state headed by the mahdi, Muhammad Ahmed, and his successors.

Torture is for the 'uncivilised'

Similarly, in the 1850s, reports reached the United Kingdom of the use of torture as a policing method in what is now southern India. Despite the police force being under the control of the British, the official report into the incidents placed the primary blame on locally recruited police officers.

The claim that the British did not torture would of course have come as a surprise to the people of Kenya, Cyprus, Aden, Mandate Palestine, Malaya and many other places.

After the pictures from Abu Ghraib emerged, it became clear that torture is carried out even by so-called 'civilised' armies such as the US military [GALLO/GETTY]

Parallels with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 come to mind. Before the second Gulf War, and even after, it was argued that what distinguished the United States and its allies from Iraq was that one side practiced torture and the other did not. In the UK, even when pictures emerged from Abu Ghraib, the stock response was that British troops would never do the same.

Subsequent events of course proved that torture did not separate the UK from the US, or anywhere else. In this process though, much of the worry about allegations of abuse were more concerned with the damage they would do to the image of the British military than with the suffering of the detainees.

At times, commentators have come close to the claim that if an act is carried out by a British citizen, it cannot - almost by definition - be torture, as the British simply do not behave that way.

When the charges were drawn up for the British soldiers accused in the beating to death of Baha Mousa, an Iraqi hotel receptionist, by British troops in 2003, the prosecutors concluded that they could not charge anyone with torture, as the beatings had been carried out simply for fun. Torture, under English law, was seen as requiring the intention to inflict pain to produce information or other related motivations.

Suffering produced for enjoyment was not thought to count.

The problem is that too much is at stake for the British government to admit its complicity in torture. They will always try and find other words to describe the brutal ill-treatment of detainees. Assault, disobeying orders, dereliction of duty, even murder, but not torture.

Once torture has been used to make the distinction between the civilised and the barbarous, it is just too difficult for the British government to imagine that it stands on the wrong side of that line.

Tobias Kelly is Senior Lecturer, Programme Director Msc International Development. He works in the Social Anthropology, School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. He is editor of the Ethnographies of Political Violence series with University of Pennsylvania Press.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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