Torture scandal may hit policy

May 28, 2004

A rethink of the "gloves off" policy towards terrorists could emerge in the wake of revelations of the abuse of prisoners by US troops in Iraq, a human rights expert has said.

Sir Nigel Rodley said that the tide of moral revulsion about the abuse at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib jail was a hopeful sign about the standing of human rights in "global popular culture".

Sir Nigel, a member of the United Nations human rights committee, told The Times Higher : "I just hope that out of this horrible behaviour that has come to light there may be a rethinking of the wisdom of gloves off against terrorists."

Sir Nigel, chairman of the Human Rights Centre at Essex University, argued that hooding and sexually humiliating Iraqi prisoners amounted to torture "if the purpose is to make people provide information and confessions".

He added: "Put it another way, can you imagine the Americans refraining from using the word 'torture' if a US soldier held in some distant country was treated in that way?"

During the 1990s, Sir Nigel served as the UN's special rapporteur on torture, gathering information on the conditions of prisoners and interrogation methods in countries such as Brazil, Rwanda, Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Sir Nigel expressed concern about the interrogation of Saddam Hussein, whose whereabouts since his capture by US troops remain a mystery.

"I find it hard to muster up personal concern for a monster like that, but it has to be a matter of legal concern," Sir Nigel said.

"Taking someone off the face of the planet without access to the outside world indefinitely without any means of protection isn't on.

"I would guess that the American argument would be that prisoners of war can be detained until hostilities have ceased, and that as he is a POW, therefore he can remain detained.

"Under those circumstances, it is customary for there to be regular Red Cross access and regular transmittal of communication with the outside world, such as with relatives."

But Sir Nigel argued that minimum compliance with the Geneva Convention was not compliance with international law. He said: "There's a new field out there that considers prolonged incommunicado detention a form of cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment that can amount to torture."

Governments had a duty to provide security for their citizens, but no government had the right to cross the "red lines" of cruel and inhumane treatment, he said.

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