As the world observes 26 June as the international day in support of victims of torture, there appears to be strong support against the inhuman practice. It’s a wonder that a medieval idea continues to find life in the age of Internet, human rights and police sensitization.
It’s another matter that a very large part of humanity abhors the practice. In a survey carried out by Worldpublicopinion.org, a collaborative project on public opinion issues, it was found that publics in 14 of the 19 countries surveyed rejected the use of torture and wanted a ban on the practice. Citizens in the other five countries, India being one of them, wanted an exception: In their view, its use against terrorists to elicit information was acceptable.
In a volatile world, it’s easy to see why some people think torture is a legitimate practice against terrorists. The people and countries in question have been victims of terrorism. India, Turkey and Nigeria are among such nations. All three have seen terrorist atrocities. There are other countries where a substantial number of people surveyed think use of torture in such conditions is valid. These countries include Russia, Egypt and Indonesia.
Then there are surprises such as China, where a majority of people surveyed (66%) want an outright ban on any form of torture. It’s clear why. Fear has a strategic use, as the game theorist Thomas Schelling explained in his book, The Strategy of Conflict. Governments know this well. The Chinese regime has often used torture not only to coerce, but also to instil fear in the vast majority of people who live in that country. One man getting a beating can produce a thousand “law-abiding” citizens.
Governments cite extraordinary circumstances as the cause of torture and other inhuman practices and often promise strict oversight to limit them. If there’s one lesson that history teaches, it’s that governments can’t be trusted with such exceptional powers. In the name of saving citizens, these imperil them.
The dilemma is that if torture is banned, who will enforce the ban on terrorists and other, non-state, players who are beyond the pale of law? There’s no known way to do so. It will be many 26 Junes before a reasonable answer can be found.
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