“How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. ]…[ Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of [The Battle of Algiers].” This is how the Pentagon advertised in August 2003 the screening for its officers of the 1965 classic movie of Gillo Pontecorvo on the first urban “terrorist” insurgency –and the systematic and official if covert use of torture to “fight terrorism”.
Two years on, one cannot but conclude that the movie was not understood, or at least not seen by American decision makers. Today, the United States is grappling with the question of whether “torture” –no matter how it is defined—is legitimate and permissible to fight terrorism. The Bush Administration, which managed to weather the Abu Ghraib scandal, is fighting another upsurge of criticisms and scrutiny –- the question of torture will simply not go away and the stakes are getting higher for President Bush whose popularity ratings are at their lowest. The Administration’s position on “torture” is even challenged by prominent Republicans, with Senator John McCain, a Vietnam War veteran held for five years as prisoner of war, leading the charge. Now, the White House is threatening to veto a bill sponsored by McCain to prohibit "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of detainees in US custody. The bill was passed by the Republican- controlled Senate by 90 to 9! But for all its checks and balances, a bill has to be signed by the President of the United States to become law. And with Bush and his Vice President having failed to exempt the CIA from the McCain bill, it remains to be seen who will have the last word.
The covert policies of the White House in its declared “war” against terrorism are starting to show their limitations both domestically and internationally. Genuinely dazzled by the attacks of 9 September 2001 on its soil, the American public (more than the US media) is starting to put the methods used to protect it from terrorism in perspective, and is even beginning to sense the pitfalls of these policies in the long run. The pressure on the White House, however, is not just coming from domestic quarters, or the Arab or Moslem world, whose voices seem to be heard but invariably dismissed.
A more serious challenge to alleged covert operations by the CIA is now coming from the judicial systems of NATO allies. In Italy, prosecutors have requested the extradition of 22 purported CIA operatives involved in the CIA”s "extraordinary rendition" program –a secret scheme to fly “suspected terrorists” in CIA chartered jets to third countries without any judicial approval and often into secret detention centers throughout the world but, paradoxically, away from the reach of the American judiciary. In Spain, a judicial inquiry into alleged landings of CIA “rendition” jets was announced last Wednesday. Slowly, and under pressure from human rights groups and further to the statements of several former and current American intelligence officials, parliaments in Canada, Italy, France, Sweden and the Netherlands have opened official inquiries into the “rendition” program. For these countries, this issue is becoming most serious as they are party to the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. And so is the United States which has designed the “rendition” program precisely to circumvent its international obligations under the Convention… Ironically, one of the first well known cases of “rendition” is that of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian origin, seized by the US in 2002 while transiting in New York and sent to Syria, where he allegedly endured nearly a year of brutal treatment, including beatings with electrical cords.
The United Nations, which has been rather muted on abuses committed by its most powerful member, has a critical role to play to exert pressure on Governments that do not uphold the letter and spirit of the Convention. Appointed in June 2004, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Canadian Louise Arbour, did not shy away from expressing her horror at her own Government and that of the United States for debating the circumstances under which resorting to torture would be justified. And this week, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Manfred Nowak, took the bold step of giving an ultimatum to Washington to respond by midnight on Thursday 17 November to his demand that UN special rapporteurs of the Commission on Human Rights be granted access to interview detainees held at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo in Cuba. Hours later, Washington denied the request. Nowak commented that the US stance compared poorly to that of China, which had agreed to his unrestricted access to Chinese jails.
Somehow, Arbour and Nowak have done more to advance the cause of human rights and the credibility of the United Nations than scores of resolutions and meek statements by other UN senior officials. They might not have seen “The Battle of Algiers” but have evidently comprehended that resorting to torture is not only legally wrong, morally repulsive, but also strategically doomed.