Why, and How, to Exercise Control and Oversight Over Coercion, and Why Banning Torture?

In my second blog entry on Coercive Interrogation Methods, and on Torture, I have used a set of arguments related to some example legal frameworks and how they regulate and ban various forms of coercion. I have pointed out that there are some internationally recognized standards which are based on widely shared principles of how to preserve the rights of an individual, and especially the rights of the accused.

The core principles are enshrined in various sets of international law, and internationally accepted standards. I have also argued that the variety of national frameworks, sometimes allowing, sometimes prohibiting certain forms of coercion, should ideally refer to a minimum set of principles that the world believes in.

At least that is what I say, as a person, and as a representative of the United Nations: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Humanitarian Law and other International Law should define the least common ground for all of us.

From there, the development of even more common ground is what happens on a global policy level. This is how, just as one of many examples, the UN Convention against Torture came into effect: The General Assembly of all United Nations Member States agreed on it, and subsequently individual UN Member States choose, or not, to become signatories to it. To date, many UN Member States have become signatories to this Convention. Which means that they commit to translate the principles and consequences of conventions like this one into nationally applicable law. Thus, this means the establishment of a common legal ground: All national legislation reflect at minimum, and adhere to, what all signatories have committed themselves to.

We need to continue striving for common ground without which the World remains a fragmented place where different fundamental values lead to competition, battle, and war of values against each other. The results from these battles are real casualties, real people die as a consequence.

This striving for common ground requires patience, it is a peaceful exchange of arguments. I experience it in my line of work: Finding a definition of policing and police which holds true for all systems that form the UN has taken us through more than ten years of most intense discussions. Ultimately, just a few weeks ago we succeeded in gaining recognition for our principles through the UN Security Council Resolution 2185. Yet, my work with all UN Member States, within Committees of the UN General Assembly, continues. And every level of needed detail that I add requires the same patience.

Wherever we fail to agree on values, value systems seem to fight: Do we all accept fundamental and inalienable Human Rights? Do we all share a common understanding of democracy? Well, obviously not.

Which leads to that we seem to sometimes physically fight for values, when arguments end. Our ethical, or sometimes some would say, our moral conviction makes us fight for them, if these values are threatened. We often speak, for example, about the values of the Western World. We promote them peacefully, which means they need to add value for those we would like to convince that they matter. And if they are under attack, we might find ourselves defending them, including with military means.

That is what we argue being the legitimacy of action needed. States do this. The United Nations Security Council establishes, if necessary coercive, action on values and principles, if none of the five Veto-Powers would block it.

Whether through bilateral or multilateral action, or under the cover of the UN Security Council, one crucial aspect is whether we argue, with tolerance for other value systems, and promoting ours, where we can, in peaceful exchanges of arguments, defending ours, if necessary when attacked with violence.

The other issue is that the promotion of a value system always relies on a fundamental credibility which stems from the visible coherence of action with words: We can not say one thing and do another thing.

There, we have our contemporary conflict, related to coercion, and including its worst form, torture (with a wide variety of permitted and prohibited means of coercion in between):

How can we promote our fundamental values if we disregard them ourselves when we find it useful? One way is to play with words, to pretend something is not torture, so that the applicable legal framework can be kept aside. Another strand of action is just simply to say “I don’t care. I would do it again.” That then replaces the rule of law with the rule of the powerful.

How can we expect others to play fair, if we violate own principles of fairness that we promote?

How else can such a behavior be perceived by others than an attempt of imposing power by brute force?

How can we avoid that malicious actors such as ISIL, Boko Haram, or else, apply torture by saying that they just do what we do?

Which will lead to the necessity for me to try to explain why torture has been decided to be completely banned.

But the consequence is clear: In violating values that we have agreed upon, we simply erode them. Which leaves our children exposed to a cold and very dangerous world. It brings us back to the principle “Eye for Eye”.

Recently, I was invited to moderate a discussion amongst young students of a college here. The title: “Ferguson and beyond”. On basis of recent events leading to outrage about police violence and racial profiling in the United States, I witnessed stunning two hours of discussions with totally engaged students. The open, emphatic, and constructive exchange of arguments was awesome. The discussion focussed on values and rights which should be shared equally amongst all people, white, black, colored. Students were engaged because the problem affects their daily local lives.

Later, Professors had discussions with some students who had been so vividly engaged on this topic, but on the aspects of recent revelations of the CIA engaging in torture acts as a part of the War on Terror.

The same students, or some of them, who had so vividly engaged in the internal discussion, promoting Human Rights, expressed no interest in the fate of people who had been held in black sites as a result of errors made by the CIA, incarcerating and torturing people with little or without any judicial and administrative oversight or accountability for many years. One reason appeared to be that this problem is so far away from daily lives here. Another argument was following the line “I don’t care. They attacked us on 9/11, so we strike back.” And then there is the number issue: The fact that the numbers of innocent people captivated and tortured is so relatively small (In the report released by the Congressional Committee), made this issue easy to be pushed aside.

There it is, the Eye for Eye principle. And there it is, the rule of the powerful. And there it is, the reality of Others matters less.

So, how to argue that there are forms of coercion that need to be banned in their entirety?

I will try, next time. I end here with one of my most profound experiences: People think local, and short term, people are always overwhelmed by complexity and simply disregard it. The relationship between cause and consequence remains undetected in complex, global, and long lasting developments.

Giving up coherence between value and action has lethal consequences for several generations to come.

As I have two very young children, I care about that.

One thought on “Why, and How, to Exercise Control and Oversight Over Coercion, and Why Banning Torture?

  1. Pingback: Raw Feelings | Stefan Feller

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