IBA 2012: public opinion 'immune' to torture since 9/11

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People in liberal democracies have become 'immune' to the obscenity of torture since the US launched its 'war on terror', one of the world's great human rights champions told the International Bar Association conference today.

Juan E Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, wants to restore the consensus that existed before 9/11, when civilised opinion held that torture was unacceptable in any circumstances.

Mendez, who was himself tortured during Argentina's 'dirty war' in the 1970s, is an adviser on crime prevention to the International Criminal Court and former president of the International Center for Transitional Justice.

Asked in an interview whether the US had 'lost its legal and moral compass' in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, he said: 'The worst effect of the "war on terror" was its impact on public opinion, which has been persuaded that torture is inevitable; it has to happen; that it might be ugly but we have to accept it. That is a very different situation from the eighties and nineties.

'But I think we can recover the consensus that existed then. We need public opinion behind us and in Europe there is now more willingness to look into extraordinary rendition and secret detention. Torture is unacceptable because of what it does to us as citizens and to democracies.'

Mendez said the ban on torture instituted by President Obama on his first day in office 'seems to be holding', and he has heard of no new cases of extraordinary rendition. But that is not enough, said Mendez, who regrets the US president's failure to investigate the use of torture and degrading treatment under George W Bush.

'This debate is being led by civil societies not by governments,' Mendez added. 'I am not confident, but am hopeful, that in a few years we will know who was responsible for what, and who did what to whom - and that knowledge will help us ensure it never happens again.'

Mendez remains in discussions about visiting Guantanamo Bay (pictured). He has so far refused to do so because the US authorities will not allow him to interview detainees in private, which Mendez said is a clear breach of UN Human Rights Council standards.

He expressed hope that these talks would become redundant should Obama fulfil his promise to shut Guantanamo.

Mendez went on to voice concern that the so-called 'ticking time-bomb' concept seems to be gaining ground in the US and Israel. This holds that torture can be justified if a detainee is thought to have critical information. He stressed that a 'seasoned terrorist' would probably withhold or give false information anyway; meaning that 'you'd have to torture 100 people, many of them wholly innocent, to find out if just one of them knows'.

Said Mendez: 'There is not a single example where torture has saved lives where conventional interrogation techniques could not have been followed [and brought the same result].'

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