The Fallacies of the Torture Debate

(Published in The Huffington Post, May 19, 2011)

The torture debate has once again seeped into the public discourse in America, and it has us focusing once again on all the wrong issues. Suggestions have been made that information that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed provided while being water-boarded helped lead the CIA to bin Laden’s door. This has prompted the likes of John Yoo (author of the notorious torture memos signed by Jay Bybee) and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, to argue that the case for water-boarding has been vindicated. Others, including Senator John McCain, have refuted the assertions that the trail to Bin Laden can be traced back to so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” In short, the debate is once again centering on the question of whether torture is effective.

First, it should be noted that the debate misconstrues the effectiveness argument. Few people would assert that torture can never produce so called “actionable intelligence.” The point, made extensively by FBI interrogators and other specialists in the field, is that torture produces less reliable intelligence than traditional (and lawful) methods of interrogation, since the victim will say anything to avoid the pain, some of it true but much of it not, creating the problem of trying to distinguish between fact and fiction. Moreover, a policy of torture creates longer term strategic costs in the effort to win over hearts and minds, which ultimately makes it counter-productive and ineffective from a broader perspective.

The key point, however, is that effectiveness is entirely beside the point. We should oppose and reject the use of torture even if it could be shown that it is effective. To his credit, John McCain also makes this argument. For those who do oppose torture, it is a profound mistake to be engaging in this debate about effectiveness. First of all, the arguments get reduced to the overly simplistic and binary question of whether it ever works, which is of course vulnerable to attack — just one example of torture producing one piece of accurate intelligence tends to undermine the entire position. Hence the debate today. But more importantly, engaging in this debate tends to suggest that if torture were found to be effective, then perhaps we might have to use it. But we would not, or should not, so why get trapped in this debate? We ought to stick to the real reasons for our objections.

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The Legal Implications of Military Intervention in Libya

(Published in The Huffington Post, March 2, 2011)

As the crisis in Libya deepens there is increasing chatter about the possibility of military intervention. At the moment this is suggested most frequently in the form of a no-fly-zone over Libya, in order to prevent Gaddafi from using the air force against civilian protestors.

A debate is developing over the wisdom of any American or Western military involvement, but as usual there is little being said about the international law principles that would be implicated by such operations. And in the context of the growing unrest throughout the region, perceptions of the legality or illegality of any U.S. military action could have a significant impact on the developing narrative in the Arab world regarding America’s role, and how the emerging regimes ought to frame their relations with the U.S. going forward. The law matters in this situation.

The starting point of the legal analysis is the basic prohibition in international law on the use of armed force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. The two primary exceptions to the prohibition are self-defense, which is obviously not applicable here, and operations authorized by the United Nations Security Council in response to a threat to international peace and security. There is no question, therefore, that if the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the imposition of a no-fly-zone in order to maintain peace and security in and around Libya, as it did in Iraq in the 1990s, the U.S. and its NATO allies could do so with the full imprimatur of international law.

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New START is About More Than Russia

(Initially published in The Huffington Post, December 15, 2010)

The Senate is to take up ratification of the New START treaty for consideration again this week. While much has been written on the debate over the issue, there are important considerations that are not being sufficiently addressed. Quite apart from relations with Russia, a failure to ratify the treaty risks a fatal undermining of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

To understand why this is so requires us to go back to the origins of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (the NPT). When it was negotiated in the 1960s, to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons, there was a grand bargain struck. In exchange for agreeing to forswear nuclear weapons, the non-nuclear countries that jointed the regime were promised assistance with the development of peaceful nuclear energy, and the recognized nuclear-weapons states committed to make meaningful efforts towards nuclear disarmament.

189 countries are now party to the NPT, and the treaty has survived as the primary legal framework for the international effort to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There is no other legal prohibition against the development of nuclear weapons, and absent the NPT and its underlying bargain, there is indeed no principled basis why some countries should be permitted to maintain nuclear weapons while the rest are denied the right to develop them. … Read more…

Japan is Failing in Sri Lanka

(Initially published as a blog-post at Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace & Justice, Nov. 10, 2010)

Since the end of the Cold War, and through the era of the so-called “Global War on Terror,” Japan has struggled to define and develop a meaningful role for itself in the world of international politics. Constitutionally constrained from participating in collective security operations that involve the use of force, it has sought to cast itself as something of a “power for peace.”(1) In its handling of the crisis in Sri Lanka, however, it appears to be losing its way. While providing a great deal of aid to Sri Lanka, Japan is failing to exercise its considerable influence to help reduce the causes of further conflict, and risks not only undermining its own ambitions but also significantly harming the chances for peace and justice in Sri Lanka.

Almost exactly twenty years ago, the run-up to the Gulf War of 1991 created a major crisis within Japan that has had an enduring impact on the country’s politics and policy. The Japanese government came under enormous pressure to contribute to the international effort to resist the aggression of Iraq, in a region from which Japan obtained most of its energy supply. But Japan was constrained by its Constitution from any involvement in the military operations. It ended up providing support in other ways, including giving US $13 billion to the effort, more than any other country. Yet it was scorned (unfairly) for its “cheque book diplomacy,” received little gratitude for its help, and came out of the crisis with a deep sense that it would have to find more meaningful ways to contribute to the international community – particularly given that it continued to nurture ambitions to obtain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Japan turned to limited involvement in U.N. peacekeeping, participation in the development of such concepts as “human security” (2), and perhaps most important, the use of foreign aid, particularly in areas of ongoing or potential conflict, to increase its influence and shape its identity as a “power for peace.” With respect to Sri Lanka, in 2003 Japan tried to take a leading role by hosting the Tokyo Conference on Reconstruction and Development in Sri Lanka and it played an important role in the Norway-led peace talks that continued in the period that followed. Japan’s foreign aid to Sri Lanka, in the form of loans, grants, and the provision of technical assistance, has been part of that effort, and Japan has given far more foreign aid in the last ten years than any other country (3). In the 2007-2008 period alone, Japan provided US $ 288 million, more than three times the amount given by each of the U.S. and the E.U. (4), and Sri Lanka was tenth on the list of Japan’s top aid recipients (5). The benefits to Sri Lanka from such aid should not be minimized, and it will no doubt contribute to the economic growth and stability essential to (while of course not sufficient for) the post-war peace process in Sri Lanka. … Read more…