The Painful Lesson Israel Learned About Torture

Eitan Felner , 6/2/2004

International Herald Tribune - Monday, May 31, 2004

'Moderate physical pressure'

MADRID "The methods of interrogation which are employed in any given regime are a faithful mirror of the character of the entire regime."

As the Abu Ghraib torture scandal keeps unfolding, I recall these prescient words of the 1987 Landau Commission appointed by the Israeli government to review the interrogation methods used against terrorist suspects.

Ironically, it was this same commission, headed by a former Israeli Supreme Court chief justice, that recommended the use of "moderate physical pressure" in interrogations, causing Israel to become the only democratic state in modern times that publicly acknowledged and justified the use of physical coercion in interrogations.

These disgraceful practices only ended in 1999 when the Israeli Supreme Court took the courageous and long overdue decision to ban outright all forms of physical force in interrogation.

Now, the United States may be assuming this same notorious standing. Not in sanctioning the behaviors depicted in the now infamous Iraq prison photos, but in adopting "moderate physical pressure," including depriving prisoners of sleep, keeping them in stressful positions for extended periods, forcing them to listen to incessant piercing music and exposing them to extreme heat or cold.

There are no lingering doubts that these coercive measures are official policy of the Bush administration. Hailed by Donald Rumsfeld and other senior U.S. officials in recent Senate hearings as legitimate methods of interrogation, these practices were reportedly among the most common interrogation techniques against Iraqi detainees until they were recently barred by the top American commander in Iraq. Yet this ban applies to Iraqi prisoners only; CIA and U.S. military interrogators can continue to use them against detainees held at Guantnamo Bay or in Afghanistan and other U.S. detention centers where terrorist suspects are held.

Unlike the Iraqi detainees, the Bush administration considers those detained during the Afghanistan war or elsewhere in the context of the "global war on terrorism" as not being protected by the Geneva Conventions. But the question of the applicability of these conventions to Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees from the Afghanistan war has no bearing whatsoever on the fact that any coercive methods are absolutely forbidden against any detainee, in every and all circumstances.

The UN Convention against Torture, which applies at all times and which the United States is bound to respect as a state party to it, is no less categorical in its prohibition of torture and other forms of ill-treatment than the Geneva Conventions that apply only during armed conflicts.

It is therefore not surprising that Israel's High Court of Justice ruled that these coercive methods used in interrogations of Palestinians are illegal, since they are degrading and infringe upon the detainee's human dignity.

Likewise, the Committee against Torture, an expert UN body, determined that the interrogation methods used by Israel during that long, grim period constituted torture. Similar methods used by Britain in Northern Ireland were also banned by the European Court of Human Rights since they treated the suspect in an "inhuman and degrading" manner.

The Bush administration may argue that no state can be expected to respect the niceties of international law when fighting a fanatical terrorist groups that respects no rules. But as Aharon Barak, Israel's Supreme Court chief justice, wrote in the historic judgment outlawing all coercive methods of interrogations, "Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand. Preserving the rule of law and recognition of an individual's liberty constitutes an important component in its understanding of security. At the end of the day, they strengthen its spirit and its strength and allow it to overcome its difficulties."

Ultimately, the "rotten apples" allegedly responsible for the abuses uncovered at Abu Ghraib may have been the fruit of rotten seeds sowed by the Bush administration when it authorized coercive methods against terrorist suspects, even if the administration did not intend or authorize the gruesome methods depicted in those photos.

Once the moral and legal taboo of deliberately assaulting the physical and mental integrity of helpless detainees has been lifted, the use of torture cannot fully be prevented.

If anything can be learnt from the disgraceful experience of Israel with the use of force in interrogations is that the slippery slope to torture is built into any system that allows any form of physical coercion in interrogation of its security suspects.

[Eitan Felner, a human rights consultant, was the director of B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and a former chairman of the Israeli section of Amnesty International.]