By Sarah Joseph
So George Bush has admitted that he authorised waterboarding. In fact, he seem quite proud of it – damn right. Bush asserts that the practice saved lives. But one can never know if Bush’s assertions about the results of waterboarding are correct. Would more orthodox tactics have worked to gain the alleged life-saving information? Who knows – one can never prove the counterfactual. In any case, we have only the assertions of Bush (and others like Dick Cheney) to assure us that lives were saved. Not meaning to be rude, but they could have ulterior motives for asserting that the controversial technique achieved its goals.
Torture is prohibited in all circumstances in international law. But Bush claims waterboarding is not torture. In that respect, perhaps he should ask the opinion of Christopher Hitchens, the commentator who could not withstand the practice for more than a few seconds. He could also ask the UN Committee against Torture. Even if waterboarding somehow doesn’t reach the threshold of severity required for “torture” (and I believe it does), it constitutes inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, also prohibited in all circumstances under the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The US is a party to both of these treaties.
Of course, some (such as Alan Dershowitz) have argued that torture should be permitted to combat terrorism in some circumstances. I have previously argued in favour of maintaining the absolute ban on torture (eg. here and here). To conclude, I will mention just two arguments against Bush’s endorsement of waterboarding. First, it seems that the toleration of “good torture” at the highest levels of the US government could have a strong link to the perpetration of “bad torture” such as the atrocities (shamelessly photographed) committed in Abu Ghraib by US personnel. Secondly, Bush’s brazen admission deprives the US of moral capital in arguing against the use of such tactics by other States or groups. Perhaps the US doesn’t want to. I have my doubts though – surely the US would charge a Taliban member who waterboarded a captured US soldier in order to find out when a US offensive might be planned, even if such a tactic ultimately “saved” Taliban lives.