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Juan Mendez recommends the best books on

Torture

Can torture ever be justified? No, says the UN special rapporteur, who tells us how torturers try to excuse themselves and what remedies should be available to surviving victims

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    1

    The Treatment of Prisoners Under International Law
    by Nigel S Rodley

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    2

    The Little School
    by Alicia Partnoy

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    3

    Death and the Maiden
    by Ariel Dorfman

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    4

    Torture Team
    by Philippe Sands

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    5

    Nineteen Eighty-Four
    by George Orwell

Juan Mendez

Juan E Méndez is a visiting professor of law at the American University, Washington College of Law, and the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. He was an adviser on crime prevention to the prosecutor, International Criminal Court in 2009 and 2010. He is also co-chair of the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association. A native of Argentina, Mr Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defence of human rights and has a long and distinguished record of advocacy throughout the Americas. As a result of his involvement in representing political prisoners, the Argentinean military dictatorship arrested him and subjected him to torture and administrative detention for more than a year

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Juan Mendez

Juan E Méndez is a visiting professor of law at the American University, Washington College of Law, and the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. He was an adviser on crime prevention to the prosecutor, International Criminal Court in 2009 and 2010. He is also co-chair of the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association. A native of Argentina, Mr Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defence of human rights and has a long and distinguished record of advocacy throughout the Americas. As a result of his involvement in representing political prisoners, the Argentinean military dictatorship arrested him and subjected him to torture and administrative detention for more than a year

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It’s a pretty long title, the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. What kinds of things do you do for your work?

The rapporteurship has a long trajectory. It was created in 1985. Before me there were four very prominent European jurists who were in charge of it. Essentially it is one of the so-called special procedures of the United Nations that are supposed to protect rights of a certain theme, like, for example, torture. There are several other areas where people’s rights are protected as well.

Within that there are basically three activities. One is to receive complaints from the public and act on them by looking into them and engaging the relevant state to find out whether the facts are correct or not. And if they are correct, whether the violation of human rights, in this case the torture case, can be solved. The second way is to visit the states that have invited the special rapporteur to a fact-finding mission in order to get the whole picture of human rights, in particular, in my case, torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and to make recommendations to improve the situation and put an end to the torture that may be happening. And the third is to make recommendations to the [UN] Human Rights Council on a semi-annual basis on topics that cut across borders and can be considered as ways to eliminate or at least reduce the incidence of torture around the world.

These are recommendations of course, and not binding on states, but because of the trajectory of the rapporteurship and the particular importance of the prohibition of torture in international law they tend to carry quite a bit of weight.

Your first choice actually looks at the importance of this international law, The Treatment of Prisoners Under International Law by Nigel Rodley.

He is one of those four European jurists that I mentioned who held the position of special rapporteur on torture some years back. I particularly selected his book because it is the ultimate exposition of international law standards with regards to the treatment of prisoners in detention centres as well as in penitentiaries.

But in reality, when you are on the ground, do you see that these laws are actually being adhered to?

Well, they are adhered to in different degrees and in different intensities in different parts of the world. The fact that they are law doesn’t automatically mean that they are respected. That doesn’t diminish the importance of considering them binding obligations of the state. And even the states that commit torture will never admit to doing it, which shows that they recognise that they are violating an international obligation.

But even supposedly enlightened countries, such as the US and UK, are still justifying the use of what many would say amounts to torture. What do you think of that?

I think that has been a very important setback in the last 10 years. The fact that important countries when confronted with a serious threat think that they can find exceptions to their obligations is obviously an important setback for our efforts to abolish torture in our time. Particularly because less powerful states look to countries like the US and the UK and think, “If they can get away with it, why not us?” But, I also feel very strongly that in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom the reaction of civil society and democratic thought has been very strong and has pointed out that no matter how people in government want to redefine these obligations the fact that the United States and perhaps the United Kingdom violate the standards doesn’t mean that they diminish the very absolute prohibition of torture.

So at least it is encouraging that the civilians in those countries seem to have their moral compass in the right place?

I think so and it is not only the civilians. In the case of the United States at least, a lot of the criticism of the practice of the Bush administration came directly from the military. These were people who had experience in the military courts and also in action on the battlefields and they have been the most powerful voices in showing that this is not the proper way to fight terrorism.

Something that, sadly, wasn’t true for the military involved in your next choice, The Little School by Alicia Partnoy. This book must really resonate with you because she is a fellow Argentinean who was also tortured during the so-called Dirty War.

Yes, that is right. She is a friend of mine also and we have shared a lot of time in exile here in the United States. Now she teaches English and literature out on the West Coast. I am very gratified to know that only recently she presented this book in Buenos Aires. And I thought it was particularly important to point it out, because it is a book about how torture is perceived by women and how women retain their personal dignity even under the most demeaning and distressing situations like Alicia suffered.

What kinds of things happened to her?

In Argentina people were tortured very savagely, and particularly if you were in the circle of disappearances. The Little School was the name given to a secret detention centre where she was held near the city of Bahia Blanca and, like in so many other of these places, it was used by the military as a clandestine detention and torture centre. In those years these places were shielded from any monitoring by courts or anyone else. That allowed the torturers to have no limits whatsoever on what they could do to their prisoners. Many of the prisoners were women and in almost all cases part of their torture was sexual in nature.

And that type of torture is still used in many countries around the world?

Yes, it is. Once a torturer feels free to exercise control over somebody else for the purposes of interrogation or any other purpose then they actually persuade themselves that the victim has no reason to be treated with any kind of dignity. And because the purpose of torture is to destroy personality, sexual abuse of men and of women is almost always part of the experience of torture.

Let’s move across the border to neighbouring Chile with Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, which touches on some of the long-term effects torture has on people.

I would also say that the reason I selected it is because the play addresses the dilemma of what you do to the torturer and what the torture victim is entitled to when the nightmare of the torture-based regime is over and a state is trying to reorganise itself along democratic and more humane lines. I think the play shows very starkly that kind of dilemma that societies experience.

For those who don’t know the play, it is about a Chilean woman, Paulina, who meets someone through her husband whose voice she recognises as her torturer.

That is right and her husband is a human rights lawyer who is completely devoted to the rule of law. By chance they meet her torturer and she has to decide whether she is going to kill him or subject him to the same type of thing that she got put through, or whether she will let justice run its course.

I think the three characters are perhaps a little too roughly drawn because many of us have at least the lawyer and the victim in one’s self. But I think for dramatic purposes it is a very interesting description of the dilemma. And most importantly, that dilemma is a difficult choice that the society has to make, not just the moral choice of some individuals.

From your experience of looking at different countries what do you think should happen to the torturers and their victims?

I think the victims have a right to a remedy from the democratic state. That remedy includes the investigation and prosecution of the torturer.

No matter how long ago the events took place?

No matter how long, no matter what it may take. But, of course, the investigation and prosecution of the torturer has to proceed along democratic lines as well. He cannot be mistreated (and the torturer is almost always a he, unfortunately). He has to be given all of the guarantees and dignity that he has denied his victims.

Your next book looks at the US’s role in the use of torture: Torture Team by Philippe Sands

I really like Professor Sands’s approach to this issue. Obviously there were several other things written about the “torture memos” as they were called during the Bush administration. But Sands went ahead and interviewed the authors of those memos and tried to get to the bottom of their motivation. And I think he does, so therefore giving them a day in court, as it were. And at the same time his book does not diminish the moral outrage that should be associated with this attempt to re-write the norms of international law regarding torture, which was done to provide a legitimising approach to definitions of torture.

What kinds of motivations did he find among the people that he interviewed?

I think the lesson is that, in fact, the motivations are similar to the ones that the United States has criticised in many other countries that are accused of torture. They use the idea of there being exceptions to the rule and that this was needed because the US was in a state of emergency, and maybe these arguments are a little more sophisticated than what Pinochet and his minions came up with 30 years ago, but they are not all that different.

The justifications can be reduced to what many people said, which is, “Well, yes, those laws are important to have, but when it comes down to serious problems such as terrorism, we should be allowed to run around the prohibition because we are seeking a higher end to eliminating terrorism against the United States – therefore we should be allowed to proceed in violation of these norms.”

The other aspect of it is also that these proponents of torture during the Bush administration say that it works, and I think that Philippe Sands’s book demonstrates that this is by no means the case. Unfortunately the debate rages on here in North America. Even after the death of Osama bin Laden you may have heard that there have been voices saying, “See? We did it. His death was thanks to us because we allowed some people to be tortured six years ago, and what they told us finally led us to where Osama bin Laden was hiding.” That is not persuasive at all but unfortunately it is still picked up and used as justification by the people who want to continue using torture, and it is also a way of taking some credit away from President Obama.

Finally you have chosen a classic, 1984 by George Orwell.

I think torture is not just the physical torture that we all associate with the word. It is also several forms of psychological and mental torture that can happen even on a massive scale.

Of course 1984 came and went and we didn’t have the kind of dramatic tyranny George Orwell predicted. But, perhaps we didn’t have it in 1984 because of his book 35 years earlier. I think it does alert us to the danger of unfettered state power, which under any circumstance always ends up committing violations against individuals and particularly the kind of violation that we associate with the word torture.

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