Ignatieff ducks debate with critics in torture row

September 9, 2005

One of the world's most renowned human rights academics, Michael Ignatieff, stands accused by colleagues of refusing to debate a claim that he has become an apologist for human rights abuses because he is worried that a public row could damage his plans for a political career.

Professor Ignatieff, director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, was attacked this year in the celebrated free-speech journal Index on Censorship , with which he has been long associated.

But rather than taking up the editor's offer of printing a ten-page reply, the one-time darling of the liberal elite resigned from the journal's editorial and advisory board.

His reaction has led to an allegation that he is refusing an intellectual debate because he is seeking high political office in his native Canada.

Professor Ignatieff will join the University of Toronto in January as a visiting professor in human rights policy.

"Could political ambition, the desire to have a clean public image, be an adequate explanation for Professor Ignatieff's overdramatic reaction to (the) carefully reasoned, if provocative, article?" asks sociology professor and Times Higher columnist Laurie Taylor in the current edition of New Humanist magazine.

The Index on Censorship article, by London School of Economics law professor Conor Gearty, was headlined "Torture's new best friends".

It claims that the arguments in Professor Ignatieff's book The Lesser Evil put him into the "category of hand-wringing, apologetic apologists for human rights abuses".

Professor Gearty told The Times Higher : "I made clear that he does say he is opposed to torture. But my take was that his talk of 'good' and 'evil'

is creating a framework that distinguishes people by reference to whether they are the good guys or the bad guys."

He said Professor Ignatieff, as well as supporting the 2003 Iraq War, had justified forms of ill-treatment such as non-harmful sleep deprivation that could be seized on by politicians to justify torture.

Neither Professor Ignatieff nor his assistant returned calls and e-mails from The Times Higher.

Professor Ignatieff wrote to Index on Censorship : "If your editorial staff had spent five minutes checking Mr Gearty's insinuations against the text of my book, they could have spared me this insult to my reputation."

Professor Gearty told The Times Higher : "I did anticipate a response, but would have thought that it would be in the form of a very good written reply drawing out what he might have said are my inconsistencies and restating his position.

"You can't throw words out - highly influential words - and then have a little fit when they're criticised. That's not the tradition that he's come from."

Stan Cohen, a sociology professor at the LSE and guest editor of the Index on Censorship's torture special, has also reportedly stood by the article's factual accuracy and has told Professor Ignatieff he is "wrong" to refuse his right to reply.

Judith Vidal-Hall, editor of the Index on Censorship , told The Times Higher the magazine had refused to offer him any apology or retraction, but had repeated its request that he take up a right to reply.

"It is entirely my personal view that what he wanted from us was an unqualified apology, which would give him a clean bill of health for political life in Canada," she said.

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