Monday, February 13, 2012

Using intelligence derived from torture is 'act of complicity': Douglas College Chair

By Darin Nesbitt, Chair of Political Science

Darin Nesbitt
The Conservative federal government recently authorized the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) to use foreign intelligence and information extracted by torture when there may be a threat to human life, property or public safety.

This decision reverses a prior directive prohibiting CSIS from doing so. To accept information gathered by foreign governments that implicitly or explicitly authorize torture is itself an act of complicity. This radical policy shift by the Conservative government violates domestic and international law, is profoundly unethical and ultimately undermines Canada’s democratic traditions.

In terms of international law, Canada is a signatory to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Article 4(1) of the Convention prohibits signatories from enacting policies that involve “complicity or participation in torture.” The Convention against Torture and the Geneva Conventions are components of an evolving body of international law which recognizes that governments are morally and legally obligated to preserve human dignity even – perhaps especially – in times of crisis, chaos and war.

With reference to constitutional law, the Canadian Charter prohibits government policies that subject individuals to cruel and unusual treatment or punishment. Since torture by definition entails inflicting physical or psychological pain on others, it is degrading and cruel treatment. While Charter rights are open to political and legal interpretation, some are so necessary to sustain a free and civilized community that they should be immune from the hoary calculus of reasonable limitations.

From an ethical standpoint, the federal government’s policy reversal is unjustifiable on both rights-based and utilitarian grounds. To claim, as some do, that individual rights on occasion must be sacrificed to preserve them is not contradictory but rather incoherent. Utilitarianism asserts that an ethical course of action is one that maximizes overall happiness, well-being, or social good. The federal government is using a discredited version of utilitarianism – securing public safety – to justify its decision.

Does the policy of torture preserve public order and safety? There is no credible independent study conclusively demonstrating its use either produces reliable information or prevents terrorist acts. Indeed, former U.S. officials have confirmed that “enhanced interrogation” – a euphemism for torture – was used to extract information alleging a connection between al-Qaeda and former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Citizens now know this fiction was one of the central justifications for the 2003 Iraq War. It is unforgiveable for a government to declare war, or diminish freedoms, on the basis of unreliable and misleading intelligence.

Democratic governments must vigorously ensure and faithfully preserve public order. We sacrifice our souls, however, if we descend to the level of terrorists who themselves use expediency to justify their heinous acts. The Conservative government has deeply betrayed the public trust by forsaking cherished traditions and principles such as the rule of law, constitutionalism, freedom and human dignity merely for unreliable information. Two U.S. presidents, despite their efforts, have been unable to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp – a sobering reminder that hands once dirtied cannot be unsoiled.

Read more about this issue on the CBC website.

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