A truly extraordinary injustice

In May 2004, the New Statesman ran an article describing the practice employed by the American Government known as ‘extraordinary rendition’. This topic has recently been in British news, since the UK may have been complicit in some cases of rendition. Such troubling behaviour by Western democracies is certainly something worth attempting to explain and explore.

Definitions and clarifications are required. Extraordinary rendition refers to when a person is apprehended by authorities and sent abroad, without the process being sanctioned by a domestic court. This has primarily been applied to those people suspected of having links to terrorism. The destination of rendition can vary, but Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Afghanistan have all featured as either locations of American interrogation centres and jails, or willing recipients of suspects then subjected to imprisonment and torture by the countries themselves. And this is the kick in the tail of the phenomenon – the purpose of sending supposed criminals abroad is, quite plainly, to condemn them to torture and often death. This is because such punishments may be completely illegal or would not be permitted by the courts on home soil in that particular case.

One of the most infamous of these jails, Guantánamo Bay, is of course still open and thriving as the United States’ very own Tartarus for the confinement of suspected terrorists. Sending people to Guantánamo does not actually involve extraordinary rendition, since the prison is still owned by the U.S. What is relevant is that it is located, geographically, beyond the influence of U.S. law itself. Essentially, sending somebody to Guantánamo means that the U.S. can do whatever it likes to them and there is little, beyond international pressures, to be done to prevent it. Moreover, the punishments supposedly taking place on a regular basis within the walls of Tora Prison in Cairo, or Far’ Falastin in Syria, provide cause for concern far beyond the issue of brutality in Guantánamo.

The approach was typical of the Bush administration after 9/11, and is a key example of how the U.S. government abandoned the rule of law in its pursuit of bringing terrorism to its knees. This is an important point because it demonstrates just how horrendous such actions are. For a government to ignore its own laws, for a democratically legitimised state to exercise coercion and power that contravene the code that sanctions all other activities within that state, is absurdly immoral. There is not much point in subscribing to a system of rules, designed to protect individuals and their rights, unless that system and its ideological foundations receive the full backing of the state. Stephen Grey, the investigative journalist and author of the article in the New Statesman, terms the chain of prisons ‘America’s archipelago’, after Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book The Gulag Archipelago. That the law and its ethical conventions in America were completely abandoned by the government there leaves little difference, morally, between the procedures described here and the methods utilised by the Soviet regime.

This is the case because there is no essential difference between committing an act on home soil without laws in place, avoiding the laws when they are there and committing it elsewhere, and sanctioning another agent to commit it in your place. The torturous process of interrogation commonplace in the foreign prisons has the same moral implications as it would if it took place in Guantánamo. Similarly, if there was no law forbidding torture in the U.S. itself and the process occurred on home soil, the moral implications of the torture would remain unchanged, but would simply be more apparent. The ethical gravity of torture when sanctioned by a government is equal in every case, no matter how just and well-intentioned its laws are. By ignoring those laws, a democratic state reduces its standing on an ideological spectrum to that of the very dictatorships and tyrannies it spends the rest of its time condemning. Britain runs the risk of falling into a trap of duplicity in being found to have aided the Americans in this cause, when it criticised the operation a few years later.

An objection: is it not irrelevant what ‘ideological standing’ others think we have? Why should we care about taking the moral high ground? I answer that this is precisely not the point – there is something inherently valuable about promoting the rights and liberties of human beings, something recognised in the very conception of a democracy. If we abandon that cause in areas of our choosing, then a great loss is suffered. Moreover, practical advantage on the international stage comes from a consistently just approach in national conduct – achieving ends of justice or stability through the pressures of foreign policy, which is often a role assigned to the U.S. as the world’s most powerful nation, becomes a much more difficult task if all negotiations are to be met merely with accusations of hypocrisy (which is all too often the case).

Another familiar defence of these methods always arises. It is a well-known dilemma: if there is some great, tangible gain to be achieved through employing torture, surely it will at some point be justified? This gain may come from collecting information or perhaps deterring other terrorists from acting since the perceived risks of terrorism are much higher. If the detainment and torture of suspects saves many innocent lives, it should continue, the argument proceeds. To this I respond by pointing firstly to the legal provisions and rules maintaining our personal safety from day to day, which we have a great reverence for. On what grounds should similar laws be circumvented, insofar as they protect a suspect from at least the most horrific of treatments, in total disregard for the rights of other human beings?  Punishment must take place within the law. Secondly, one might speculate that by fighting fire with fire, or rather terror with terror, any respect and regard held by terrorists for the U.S. as a foe may have been completely vaporised. Consider for one moment the level of vengeance demanded by the torture of one’s comrades on top of pre-existing motives for aggression, and wanton disregard for the rights of suspects may not seem the best strategy for the West to employ.

I want to make two recommendations based on these observations. Injustices that have taken place, in the past, on an international level, need to be uprooted and investigated, as the article from The Guardian, which I have linked above, argues. This is the only way we can strive for consistency in the application of ideologies and the rule of law – the truth encourages justice. Secondly, the imposition of global standards of law and human rights must become stronger, for reasons including some that I will explore in a post to come. The United Nations is essentially at a loss in any attempt to bring the U.S. to account over even such abhorrent procedures. International Courts need more strength if the world is to remain stable and people are to remain protected.


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