Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland until I return to the Murcia region of Spain in the Autumn for a month or so
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Wednesday, 12 May 2004

The treatment of prisoners in Iraq under US and UK detention

Last week US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in evidence to a Senate committee, said:

"I failed to recognise how important it was to elevate a matter of such gravity to the highest levels, including the president and the members of Congress..."

It is good that he also apologised and accepts full responsibility for the mistreatment of prisoners which occurred "on my watch". However, I consider that the fundamental flaw in his moral judgement evidenced by this statement is a shocking revelation and must call seriously into question his fitness to remain in his post. This was the substance of what The Economist (subscription required) said in its issue dated 8th May 2004, whereas The Daily Telegraph, in a leader article the same day opines he should not go; my current view is that The Economist is correct in its judgement. Both publications have, like me, always supported the action taken by the Coalition in seeking to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. This remains my basic view and needs to be borne in mind when reading what follows.

I have read and heard a number of reports over the past year, and specially over the past week or so, implying that Americans and British would never do the things the revelation of which has caused such political uproar on both sides of the Atlantic in recent days, quite apart from disgust and horror around the world. I have never completely 'bought' this argument as I believe that most human beings are capable of acts, given the appropriate motivation and climate of opinion, which would otherwise perhaps seem quite out of character. The notion that Americans and British are innately more virtuous in their potential actions than Iraqis, or any other nationality, is difficult to sustain. John Simpson had a very interesting article in The Sunday Telegraph last Sunday (9th May) which refers to experiments conducted by Dr Stanley Milgram at Yale (and discussed in the American publication Psychology Today a couple of years ago in an article by Dr Thomas Blass) and by Philip Zimbardo at Stamford. These studies showed that, irrespective of nationality, somewhere between 61 and 66 per cent of people were prepared to inflict 'torture' if the correct conditions were established. As John Simpson concludes:

"People torture others because their victims are weak and they are strong. They also do it from a sense of the righteousness of their cause, which sweeps away their scruples: the psychiatrists call this a 'legitimising ideology'."

I have no doubt at all that neither US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, nor anyone else in a position of authority in the US Administration, far less US President George W Bush himself , advocated openly or impliedly that actions which might legitimately be classified as 'torture' could or should be carried out in furtherance of the 'war on terrorism' of which the Coalition activities in Afghanistand and Iraq are a part. However, I am strongly of the view that the climate of opinion which this US Administration has fostered in justifying its responses to the horror of the attacks on the United States in September 2001 has allowed the lapses in the discipline necessary in any chain of command to develop and result in this kind of thing, described in an article by Julian Coman entitled 'He did not comprehend the size of the bomb that was ticking'. The he in question is of course Donald Rumsfeld.

Those who carried out the acts which are recorded in 'souvenir' photographs state that they were merely carrying out the orders of their chain of command superiors and that they were not aware of the terms (or perhaps even the existence?) of the Geneva Conventions designed to protect detainees in conflict situations. Readers of this blog will know my views on the matter of the indeterminate detention without charge of those held at the US's Guantanamo Bay base, mainly those from the Afghanistan theatre, about whose precise status under international law there is some dispute and even accepting this, some disgust at the stance of the US Administration policies there. There is perhaps much less doubt about the status under international law of those held in Iraq and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has apparently been expressing its disquiet concerning the conditions of detention and the treatment of those detained, to both the US and UK detaining authorities in Iraq for some months, culminating in an ICRC report in February this year, the details of which are now becoming public.

Some have said that the scale of what has been done by some Coalition personnel in Iraq is dwarfed by what occurred during Saddam Hussein's time in power in Iraq. No doubt. The hypocrisy of critics, specially those in some Arab countries and other countries who do not have a democratic system of government and whose governments probably sanction or tolerate, routinely, the mistreatment of citizens and others in their territories, has been mentioned in an effort, presumably, to minimise the impact or the validity of their criticisms. These efforts miss the point entirely - there is no justification, ever, for torture. It is not open to any government, citing any justification whatsoever, to subject persons under its control to cruel and unusual punishment, or 'torture' for short. This applies just as much to those held at Guantanamo as to those held in Iraq. Blogger Norman Geras ('Normblog') has a very interesting article on the torture and humiliation inflicted on some of those detained at Abu Ghraib which is worth reading in its entirety, but this brief extract encapsulates much of my own thing on the matter:

"No, the two main countries of the Coalition should not be held to a higher standard than anyone else over torture, because they should be held to the highest, and the only, standard in this matter - and so should every other government. The use of torture is impermissible everywhere and always. It is a gross and unconscionable crime."

Whilst my article has referred to both the US and the UK mistreatment of detainees in Iraq, most of the references linked to have dealt mainly with those relating to those held under US control. This in no way implies that I wish to minimise the seriousness of acts [alleged to have been] committed by British personnel in Iraq, even if the scale of the mistreatment carried out by US and UK personnel does seem to differ somewhat.

I wrote near the beginning of this article that I consider the US civil Administration directly implicated in the creation of a climate of opinion where some of its personnel have acted inappropriately. Quite apart from the doctrine underlying the detention of non-citizens at Guantanamo without charge and for indeterminate periods, as well as a small number of US citizens in South Carolina, the fact that the US has also declined to sign the treaty which established the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, which means that US servicemembers are not subject to being tried for alleged war crimes under the jurisdiction of the ICC, seems to have created the assumption that the US is not subject to the same sanctions as signatory nations (such as the UK, for example). In practice, of course, the power of the US means that it cannot be forced to comply with any international agreement it chooses to ignore or declines to participate in - that is the stark reality. It is a reality which is not, quite obviously, replicated in the case of the UK.

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