Torture’s voices: No neutral ground

George W. Bush's luncheon visit to Toronto on September 19 has come and gone, but a bitter taste lingers among - and about - Christians.

Was it a good idea for a local Christian businessman and a Christian university to offer the former U.S. president a podium to speak about his "ground-breaking" policies on faith-based higher education? Would it have been better to join those pushing to have him arrested at the border and investigated as a war criminal under international law?

The issues are profoundly more serious for Christians than the polarized volleys about "left vs. right" politics or "free speech vs. censorship."

Bush's scheduled September 20 university talk was abruptly cancelled after a vitriolic student protest spoiled the university's appetite. Administrators at Tyndale University College and Seminary found no way to divert attention to the subject of Christian education if Bush were to be in the room. It was of no use to acknowledge Bush as "controversial," or to recognize that "we don't all agree" and to call for dialogue about differences of opinion.

But cancelling breakfast did not stop Bush from entering Canada to speak at a more hospitable private luncheon in a Toronto hotel. What did he talk about? It appears journalists may not have been present, but one guest mentioned Bush's evident Christian faith, his lack of regret about post 9/11 policies and the legal green light he received from government lawyers on waterboarding.

Both Bush and former vice-president Dick Cheney admit they personally approved the policy of simulated drowning for suspected terrorists and "enemy combatants." They have no regrets.

And many support them. A 2006 poll of people in 25 nations showed that 22 per cent of people in Canada agreed that the terrorist threat means governments should be allowed to use torture to "gain information that saves innocent lives." A 2009 poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 49 per cent of Americans - and 62 per cent of U.S. white evangelical Christians - believe torture is often (18 per cent) or sometimes (44 per cent) justified to "gain important information" from suspected terrorists.

The legitimacy of waterboarding is not governed by public opinion. It is a matter of international law binding on Canada and the United States. Waterboarding was described as "water torture" for centuries before it was delicately renamed "enhanced interrogation" and legalized during the Bush administration.

Wilful torture is a "grave" breach of the Geneva Conventions. The UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) prohibits torture absolutely; no exceptional circumstances whatsoever may be used to justify it. It doesn't matter whether the person being tortured is a suspected terrorist, whether the torture is conducted at home or abroad.

Whether torture "works" or not is irrelevant. It is both legally and morally spurious to claim that torture of suspected terrorists is justified if it saves innocent lives, but, as it happens, research indicates torture doesn't produce reliable information.

The UN Committee Against Torture expressed concern in 2006 about U.S. involvement in torture in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantánamo Bay and secret prisons around the world. The committee said the U.S. should stop practices of sexual humiliation, "waterboarding," "short shackling" and using dogs to induce fear.

The Geneva Conventions and the CAT make it mandatory for states to investigate and ensure prosecution of persons suspected of torture or complicity in torture. Yet in the U.S. only low ranking personnel have been held accountable. Human Rights Watch (HRW) says "the nature of crimes is so serious, and mounting evidence of wrongdoing is now so voluminous, that it would be an abdication of responsibility for the United States not to push this to the next level."

HRW calls for investigation of senior leaders most responsible for setting U.S. interrogation policies, including . Bush, Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others. Obstacles against investigating high ranking officials and former officials are political, not legal.

As for the lawyers whose 2002 memos gave legal cover to high ranking officials, many scholars and legal experts have denounced their opinions and questioned their professional conduct. The U.S. Justice Department has returned to orthodox legal understandings.

As early as 2002, the now so-called "torture memos" were denounced by some in other branches of the Bush administration, including Secretary of State Colin Powell. The Bush administration received internal legal warnings that their policies put them at risk of prosecution for war crimes. Accepting bad legal advice is neither a legal nor a moral defence.

Canada, too, is bound by international law to prevent and punish international crimes such as torture and other war crimes. If a suspected war criminal ends up in the country, Canada has an international legal obligation to ensure proper investigation and prosecution in accordance with international legal standards. Canada may prosecute suspected war criminals in Canada or extradite them to jurisdictions able and willing to prosecute them in accordance with international human rights standards.

Christians are responsible to respect the law unless it is palpably inconsistent with our responsibilities to God.

Christians have additional responsibilities. We are called to challenge untruths and wrongdoing while respecting alleged wrongdoers' dignity and rights. An alleged wrongdoer's rank, power, religion, political affiliations or wealth are irrelevant. We are not to be neutral in the face of wrongdoing, not even when our friendships, collegial relationships, promotions or jobs are at stake. We are called to side with those who are treated unjustly, even when the unjustly treated are not themselves charming or just.

As Miroslav Volf says in his compelling book, The End of Memory, the peculiar challenge of Christians involves "walking - and stumbling - in the footsteps of the enemy-loving God." At a minimum, this means we will treat both wronged and wrongdoers - and our ideological opponents - truthfully, justly, carefully and with civility.

But are Christians called to provide hospitable platforms and microphones to persons suspected of war crimes and to politely allow them express their views on any subject without moral or legal challenge? No. Unaccountability is not a just option.

Catherine Morris is a lawyer who has worked in the field of conflict resolution, peace-building and international human rights on five continents. She teaches courses in the Faculty of Law at the University of Victoria and universities in Europe and Asia. She is a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Victoria.

Read the article Bush, Tyndale and the dilemmas of Christian leadership, by Arthur Paul Boers.

Read a selection of Letters to the Editor pertaining to this story.

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