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Reviewed by:
  • Torture: A Human Rights Perspective
  • Elaine Webster (bio)
Torture: A Human Rights Perspective (Kenneth Roth & Minky Worden eds., The New Press: 2005).

The stark image on the book's cover potently depicts the violence and malevolence of torture. Black and red electrical wires frame grave and intense questions: "Does it make us safer?," "Is it ever ok?." The image also reminds us that the debate is far from purely academic. Torture: A Human Rights Perspective is amongst the first in a growing list of literature provoked by actions and policy decisions in the context of the war on terrorism of which the United States is the epicentre of a globally-relevant dilemma. The uniqueness of this volume is its basis in human rights. The declared objective is to address the controversies in the contemporary debate surrounding torture, including its definition, whether it is effective and whether it is acceptable. In fact, the scope of this accessible book reaches beyond this into a more general exploration of the issue in various sub-perspectives: historical, coupled with an examination of the current debate; international with a special focus on the US; and legal complemented by moral and other viewpoints. The range of contributors is wide, including lawyers, NGO activists, academics, current and former UN officials, civil servants, a politician and a film maker, giving the book a firm practical grounding.

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch and co-editor of the book, provides a succinct introduction to the central themes. He elucidates the status of the prohibition on torture and gives the definition found in the 1984 Convention Against Torture to which the scope of the book adheres. Although the overview of contributions is brief, this is compensated by a mini-abstract preceding each chapter. Roth places the debate in context: from the most prominent human rights defender to "the most influential abuser" the US has adopted the use of torture as a serious foreign policy option in the wake of 11 September 2001.1 In response, Roth places the issue firmly in a human rights perspective, stating that a society which believes in "the essential dignity and humanity of each individual"2 must reject torture as a practice that "dehumanizes people by treating them as pawns to be manipulated through their pain."3 [End Page 546]

The first of ten chapters in Part One (International Torture), takes a step back from the present to examine torture's historical precedent and the genesis of its return. In tracing 2500 years of justifications and criticisms of torture in Europe, James Ross, Senior Legal Advisor at Human Rights Watch, shows that torture "in the name of state security," was never fully eradicated and re-emerged in the twentieth century.4 Through this illuminating contribution, the reader can begin to identify parallels with recent experiences of state-sponsored torture and indeed with the current debate, which become increasingly lucid as the book progresses.

Chapter Two moves swiftly to the moral realm, where author Michael Ignatieff argues that proponents of an absolute moral prohibition on torture must recognise and accept that in an exceptional case (i.e. of the "ticking time bomb") such a ban may prevent an interrogator from extracting the information necessary to save innocent lives. Ignatieff's honesty is admirable, and his assertion is most certainly of theoretical interest. However, one may wonder about the practical relevance of recognizing that moral prohibition may come at a price, particularly when based on the "ticking time bomb" hypothesis, the validity of which is later argued to be questionable.

In the following chapter in fact Eitan Felner is amongst the authors who convincingly repudiate the usefulness of this hypothetical example in the current debate. Felner, Executive Director of the Center for Economic and Social Rights, and former Executive Director of the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, recounts Israel's experience of the legalization of the use of force during interrogations in the late 1980s (in which the "ticking time bomb" case played a significant role despite stringent criticism)—an experience of unmandated escalation, the routine torture of Palestinian detainees and a grand failure of supervision. He persuasively...


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pp. 546-551
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