‘End anti-torture imperialism now’


10:06 pm - January 3rd 2011

by Conor Foley    


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I am only an occasional reader of Norman Geras’s blog these days, but happy to grant him this late seasonal gift.

I look forward to the upcoming CiF post, ‘End anti-torture imperialism now’ – in which some progressive-minded person lets us know why the prohibition of torture is a culturally relative norm that must occasionally be sacrificed to other pragmatic considerations.

Here is the link Norm, although I am surprised you missed at the time.

But then again there was always this argument which you found to be an… “absolute must-read … a first-rate piece of analysis and advocacy: careful, morally serious and taking readers through the complexities of the argument on both sides”:

There can be no definitive answer to the question of whether torture could ever be justified, since our intuitions coupled to careful reasoning tell us both that torture is a terrible evil never to be used, and that it must be employed in a very small number of terrible situations as an abhorrent yet necessary means to a worthwhile end.

In short, some situations make dirty hands unavoidable, and the post 9/11 fundamentalist terrorist threat may be one of them.

Errr right.

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About the author
Conor Foley is a regular contributor and humanitarian aid worker who has worked for a variety of organisations including Liberty, Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He currently lives and works in Brazil and is a research fellow at the Human Rights Law Centre at the University of Nottingham. His books include Combating Torture: a manual for judges and prosecutors and A Guide to Property Law in Afghanistan. Also at: Guardian CIF
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Reader comments


I thought of that Nick Cohen column, too. But an even better example of someone who straightforwardly presents the prohibition of torture as a culturally relative norm that must occasionally be sacrificed to other pragmatic considerations is former Prime Minister Tony Blair, from this astonishing interview:

JEREMY PAXMAN: How then can you publicly endorse a country which bans political parties, bans trade unions and uses institutional torture?

TONY BLAIR: The country being?

JEREMY PAXMAN: Saudi Arabia? You called it a friend of the civilised world.

TONY BLAIR: Yes, but it is also important to realise that if we want a secure progress in the Middle East, we should work with Saudi Arabia. I don’t decide… Ethical foreign policy doesn’t mean that you try to decide the government of every country of the world. You can’t do that.

JEREMY PAXMAN: You called it a friend of the civilised world.

TONY BLAIR: It is. In my view, what it is doing in respect of the Middle East now…

JEREMY PAXMAN: It chops people’s arms off. It tortures people.

TONY BLAIR: They have their culture, their way of life.

So “human rights worker” Conor takes pop at Prof Geras rather than responding to the idiocy of the piece to which he links.

Probably because the idiocy doesn’t need to be addressed. I think it was good and proper to draw attention to the fact Geras and his ilk are also cultural relativists, and that those writing articles on “why the prohibition of torture is a culturally relative norm that must occasionally be sacrificed to other pragmatic considerations.” are more likely to come from the pro-war lobby.

Perhaps so.

While the “why democracy is a culturally relative norm that must occasionally be sacrificed to other pragmatic considerations” line is more likely to come from the lefty side.

Obviously a Nick Cohen article from two years ago is a much more pressing issue than a CiF article from last week.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/dec/31/human-rights-imperialism-james-hoge

Torture is an unequiviable evil in all circumstances and human rights are *universal* or they are nothing at all.

Sorry, ‘unequivocal’.

While the “why democracy is a culturally relative norm that must occasionally be sacrificed to other pragmatic considerations” line is more likely to come from the lefty side.

Who could forget the dirty Commies that supported Pinochet; the Trots that rose up in favour of the Contras; the SWP’s fanatical defences of Karimov; the dirty reds that sabotaged democracy in Iran, Chile, Guatamala and elsewhere…

Darn Commies

The King of Saudi Arabia has also shown great leadership…

Planeshift — I don’t think there’s any reason to think that Norman Geras is a cultural relativist on the torture question. (If you think there is, please provide evidence.)

Shatterface — we’re going round in circles here: your comment responds to Conor’s post, which responds to Norm’s post which responds to the article you’ve just linked to in your comment (and which nobody here is trying to defend).

From the article Shatterface linked to:

Human rights need to be considered in a political context. The question should not be whether a particular leader or regime violates western-conceived standards of human rights. Instead, it should be whether a leader or regime, in totality, is making life better or worse for ordinary people.

Torturing and murdering the few is OK if the majority are ‘better off’? Shame on people who think otherwise!

@7 – now Ben I’m sure you don’t want to play the numbers game, do you?!

” I don’t think there’s any reason to think that Norman Geras ”

As I don’t read his blog, and can’t be bothered to look I’ll take your word for it. But you know there have been numerous apologetics for torture from the pro war lot (Cohen, HP etc) over the years.

No, but only as I can’t stand maths. The point is that I don’t think the “left” – with its depressing habit of imagining that this dictator will bequeath his powers to the proletariat – is any more at fault than the “right” – which is quite willing to clasp hands with tyrants so long as there are fat cheques in their palms. Both “sides” have often trusted people who adopt the raiments of their ideologies: for some “leftists” it’s autocrats who purport to be socialistic; for some “rightists” it’s dictators who claim to oppose state power. Both “sides” have uncritically embraced the rivals of their foes: “leftists” when they mouth the language of anti-imperialism; “rightists” when they bluster about Communists or Islamists.

Only seems fair to post Tony Blair’s next comment from the interview cited in #1


I’m not saying that we agree with these things. Of course we don’t agree with them. What I’m saying is that if you look at the context of what’s happening in the Middle East at the moment, it is important that we are partners with Saudi Arabia. I would say to you that an extremist political regime would be a lot worse for Saudi Arabia and for the world.

I’m not sure that working with some governments who do bad things, believing that by working with them we can gradually change them for the better, is the same as moral relativism which would, surely, leave them unchanged.

Margin4error: Blair’s position in this interview is the essence of cultural relativism: torture’s not OK for us, because it’s not part of our culture, so he doesn’t “agree” with it, natch, but it is OK for them, because it’s a part of theirs. He couldn’t be more explicit: “They have their culture, their way of life.”

And the move he makes is exactly the one for which Norm (rightly) has such contempt: that of treating the “prohibition of torture” as “a culturally relative norm that must occasionally be sacrificed to other pragmatic considerations”, the other political consideration being what he calls “progress” in the Middle East, and the wider context of the interview makes it reasonably clear he’s thinking above all of the Israel-Palestine peace effort.

He does add something else in the continuation of the passage you’ve just quoted, which is a suggestion that if we didn’t “partner” Saudi Arabia, then the regime might be replaced by “an extremist political regime” which would be worse for Saudi Arabia and worse for the world. But that’s another version of the same move: we shouldn’t criticize the Saudis over torture, not only because it’s their culture (as before), but also (here) because of these additional pragmatic considerations (the regime may fall and be replaced by a worse one). Instead, we should call them “friends of the civilized world”, no less, and not dwell on torture because, after all, and to repeat, “they have their culture, their way of life”.

Note also that Blair doesn’t say anything about gradually changing the Saudi government (let alone Saudi “culture”) for the better. He raises the prospect of a worse government – not the hope of a better one.

16. Shatterface

‘Shatterface — we’re going round in circles here: your comment responds to Conor’s post, which responds to Norm’s post which responds to the article you’ve just linked to in your comment (and which nobody here is trying to defend).’

I’m aware of the circularity but I’m baffled as to why we are commenting on a comment on a comment rather than directly on the original comment – particularly when that original comment too place in a more ‘popular’ forum.

More scarily most of the responses were *supportive*.

Actually the article that Shatterface links too is in a sense much more interesting that the one that Norm cites approvingly. The one that Norm likes is a fairly standard reworking of the tired cliche about the necessity of getting your hands dirty in the face of new dangers. Norm appears at the very least equivocal about this.

Kinzer’s article- which I don’t agree with incidently particularly in relation to his crticism of human rights groups and stance on Paul Kagame especially when you consider his role in the DRC–does at least raise some interesting questions about the tradeoff between democratic rights and human rights. He raised similar questions in relation to Cuba and its Caribbean neighbours here:.

The BBC correspondent Humprey Hawskley produced a more nuanced and interesting examination of this topic here:.

Whilst I appreciate that this may be off topic I was wondering whether Conor has read Hawksley’s book and whether he thought that there was a hierachy of rights and whether some rights could seriously conflict with others may the work of human rights groups very morally complicated and difficult.

Ivory Coast being a current example of Hawksley’s point. If democracy means no more than holding elections in a context where the accountable institutions have rotted away, election either confirm A or B as the strongman who will rule unaccountably for the next x years.

I´ve not read Hawksley´s book, although he moderated a debate I did with Linda Poleman last year

http://versouk.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/conor-foley-speaks-on-war-and-aid-at-a-sold-out-frontline-club-event/

The democracy kills argument has been worked over quite a lot by development theorists – particularly Paul Collier – and obviously has some merit to it. I would need to write a much longer post to do it justice (and properly critique it).

Yes, there is generally accepted to be a ´hierarchy´ of human rights in international law, which can be seen both in their wording and status (limited, balanced or non-derogable). Privacy, freedom of expression, the right to private property, etc. belong in the former category while protection against torture, genocide and slavery are in the latter.

I did not see anything that remarkable in Kinzer´s original article; I just think it was the headline (which Kinzer will not have written) that provoked the pavlovian response from Norm. Having said which I disagree with Kinzer on Rwanda and Kagame´s responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He does, however, have an ally in Tony Blair (that well known-cultural relativist) who is very keen that we ´make allowaces´ for Kagame´s government.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/31/tony-blair-rwanda-paul-kagame

As I don’t read his blog, and can’t be bothered to look I’ll take your word for it. But you know there have been numerous apologetics for torture from the pro war lot (Cohen, HP etc) over the years.

Cohen can speak for himself, but I’m pretty confident that there has never been an article posted at HP that makes excuses for torture. I’m not aware of any author at HP who is equivocal about the use of torture.

Blair’s position in this interview is the essence of cultural relativism: torture’s not OK for us, because it’s not part of our culture, so he doesn’t “agree” with it, natch, but it is OK for them, because it’s a part of theirs. He couldn’t be more explicit: “They have their culture, their way of life.”

Actually, he could be more explicit and indeed he is in the rest of the interview. He’s not at any stage suggesting torture or other human rights abuses are “okay” for Saudi or anywhere else. He’s saying, correctly, that you play the hand your dealt. Saudi is a bulwak against extreme political Islam and we need to partner with them whilst making the case for greater liberalism.You can dispute this on many levels, but you can’t pretend he’s saying hand-chopping etc. is “okay”. He’s not.

These are the dilemmas faced by political leaders that neither bloggers nor human rights activists have to face. You can cut Saudi adrift because it isn’t Belgium or you can try to work with it. Doing the latter does not mean you give them a pass at every turn, but I’ve yet to read a convincing argument for how the ‘civilised’ world doing the former would benefit us or your average Saudi. Perhaps you can provide one?

These are the dilemmas faced by political leaders that neither bloggers nor human rights activists have to face. You can cut Saudi adrift because it isn’t Belgium or you can try to work with it.

Funny that, writers at HP never seem to take such a nuanced view when it comes to radical Muslims in the UK.

Brownie: and Kagame? From a pure body-count point of view he has got more blood on his hands than Bashir and he is currently arresting, torturing and assassinating his domestic political opponents.

Or Thaci and the KLA . . . .

I agree with you about the need for a foreign policy based on pragmatic realism (for which I have taken more than my fair share of abuse from your sub-literate above and below the line mates at HP) but you don´t need to praise these type of gangsters and autocrats as ´visionary leaders´.

23. organic cheeseboard

Saudi is a bulwak against extreme political Islam

we word ‘Wahabi’ springs to mind here.

You can cut Saudi adrift because it isn’t Belgium or you can try to work with it. Doing the latter does not mean you give them a pass at every turn, but

when put into practice – not least by a certain A. Blair – it does.

Doing the latter does not mean you give them a pass at every turn, but I’ve yet to read a convincing argument for how the ‘civilised’ world doing the former would benefit us or your average Saudi. Perhaps you can provide one?

presumably this means Israel should also be negotiating face to face with Hamas.

Because not doing so hardly benefits the average Gazan.

Oh dear I seem to have wound up the HP nut-cases again (and reminded myself of why I should never read its comment section).

The weird thing about this debate is that Kizner´s original article was an attack on HRW for its denunciations of Kagame´s violations in Rwanda and the DRC. The same day´s issue of the Guardian had Tony Blair giving almost identical arguments in support of Kagame, but rather than go for Blair they all start frothing about Kizner – who is surely a lesser figure in the global scheme of things.

The same day´s issue of the Guardian had Tony Blair giving almost identical arguments in support of Kagame, but rather than go for Blair they all start frothing about Kizner – who is surely a lesser figure in the global scheme of things.

Well quite. People with real power get a free pass at HP, especially officials from the US or UK. People like Brownie or Norm admire Tony Blair and tend to see anything he does through rose tinted spectacles. Support for people like Kagame or the House of Saud, the blocking of the ceasefire during the Lebanon War, the military support to the Colombian army, the collusion in redention flights and his description of the man who levelled Grozny as ‘my kind of guy’. All water off a duck’s back.

But if someone insignificant on the left had expressed support for some far off tyrant you’d never hear the end of it.

Saudi is a bulwak against extreme political Islam

You don’t really believe this do you?

26. FlyingRodent

Looks like I’ve missed the boat on this one, so I’ll chuck this bit in from Norm back in 2006…

http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2006/12/discussing_the_.html

You’ll notice the amount of Hey, this is a complex issue and, in the name of rational inquiry, let us not get all absolutist about this torture stuff in that piece. It’d be easy for a practising bullshitter to pretend that’s a full-throated defence of torture; then link it to, say, Nick’s article and diagnose widespread apologia for human rights relativism for ourselves and our allies. That’s better left to the amateur propagandists, of course, and there’s no need to sink to their level.

On the Guardian article that has so enraged the Professor, I think it’s fair to say that

a) Kinzer is entirely wrong in his analysis of Human Rights Watch and that his proposals are stupendously dodgy, but that

b) They’re not so very different to the slack-cutting and apologia currently underway in the west for the brutality of the Iraqi government, say and that

b) Anyone who thinks high-profile attacks on human rights abuses are not cynically deployed and selectively applied for political ends right across the planet is a Dyson-strength sucker


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    'End anti-torture imperialism now' http://bit.ly/dLSira

  2. David O'Keefe

    RT @libcon: 'End anti-torture imperialism now' http://bit.ly/dLSira





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