At Last, Australia Takes a Stand Against the Dark Side

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The Sydney Morning Herald

At Last, Australia Takes a Stand Against the Dark Side

by
Cynthia Banham

There is a line in Alex Gibney's Oscar-winning documentary Taxi To The Dark Side, aired here by SBS, which stayed with me after I watched the film for the first time last week.

One of the young American soldiers prosecuted over the death in 2002 of the Afghan taxi driver, Dilawar, at Bagram Air Base, tells the camera: "Sometimes I feel that I should have gone with my own morality, more than what was common."

We now know the junior soldiers who abused Dilawar, and those who subsequently abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib, were not acting of their own accord, without direction from above.

It was the Bush Administration which after September 11, 2001, overrode morality, and made methods of torture "common".

It was the Bush Administration which - so as to give itself the "flexibility" to use methods previously defined as torture - covertly redefined torture as "extreme acts" which resulted in "death or organ failure".

Now, finally, after years of standing idly by, Australia is taking a stand.

Four years after the Howard government refused to ratify the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Torture, the Rudd Government is moving to sign up Australia. It is also considering introducing legislation outlawing torture under the Commonwealth Criminal Code.

The Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, says he will soon talk to the states and territories about ratification. It is necessary to bring them into the process as, under the Optional Protocol, member nations must establish a system of international and national visits to places of detention - jails, immigration detention centres and psychiatric institutions - many of which are run by state and territory governments.

In March 2004, a joint parliamentary committee dominated by members of the former government declared there was "no immediate need" for Australia to ratify the protocol.

The argument made by proponents in favour of ratifying the protocol - that it would set an example on human rights to the region - was "not a compelling reason by itself" to sign.

Australia was "already regarded as a leader in human rights standards", the majority said. Some leader. As scandal after scandal broke in the US - the photographs of naked prisoners leashed like dogs at Abu Ghraib, the secret memorandums from the highest levels of the Bush Administration authorising interrogators to work outside the Geneva Conventions and use a raft of inhumane tactics against detainees - what did Australia do?

We had an attorney-general, Philip Ruddock, opine: "I don't regard sleep deprivation as torture." We had a prime minister, John Howard, agree with an interviewer in 2002 - five years before political pressure forced a backflip by his government - that it was "fair" that David Hicks be held "indefinitely without bail" at Guantanamo Bay. And we had a government defend again and again the farcical military commissions set up by the Bush Administration in Cuba, deliberately outside the purview of US domestic law, which allowed among other things evidence gained under torture to be used to convict detainees.

These are the same military commissions where the Pentagon has recently announced it is seeking the death penalty against six Guantanamo Bay detainees. Evidence against at least one of those prisoners, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an alleged September 11 plotter, is said to have been procured using the notorious "waterboarding" technique perfected during the Spanish Inquisition. (Waterboarding is where detainees are made to believe they are drowning to get them to talk.)

Torture has been around a long time. It tends to resurface during times of renewed security threat. Think of the Algerian War in the 1950s and '60s, when the French army tortured opponents, or techniques used by the British against the IRA during the 1970s.

At times of crisis or fear, the unthinkable becomes possible. A constitutional expert, Professor George Williams, says as a result of policies pursued by the Bush Administration, "We're now in a position where the use of torture is more acceptable than it was before 9/11."

But torture doesn't work. According to professional interrogators, it is unnecessary, and produces false confessions. Look at the interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The New Yorker reports that he has claimed a role in more than 30 criminal plots. It is known much of this is questionable.

And torture creates more terrorists. The use of torture places our armed forces, whom the Geneva Conventions try to protect against mistreatment in the event they are ever captured, at risk.

It demeans all of us who purport to believe in democratic values based on human dignity and the sanctity of the individual. And it usurps the moral authority of the state which uses it.

There are indications that Australia is waking up to these truths. Mark Thomson, the secretary-general of the Association for the Prevention of Torture, based in Geneva, which has lobbied the Rudd Government to sign the Optional Protocol, told the Herald that all that human rights organisations have been struggling for over the past 50 years has been challenged by what has happened since September 11, 2001.

But on the positive side Thomson says it has been an "important wake-up call" for both the public and organisations like his to guard against complacency.

"Protecting human rights is a constant struggle."

--Cynthia Banham

Copyright © 2008 The Sydney Morning Herald

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