The United Nations headquarter in Geneva, the Palais des Nations, is a soporific sort of place. The UN officials have little to disturb them as they watch the world go by, contemplating their very generous salaries and looking forward to well-funded retirements.
They are only jolted out of their slumber about once a decade when some star diplomats turn up, handling negotiations over the latest international crisis. Back in the 1990s it was the former Yugoslavia. More recently it’s been America and Iran. And once the belligerents in Syria have exhausted each other in a few years time they too will probably head to the city that has come to symbolise internationalism, neutrality and the laws of war.
To say the officials in Geneva only show signs of life when there are major peace processes happening is not strictly fair. There are also those red-letter days when a celeb turns up. It can be the UN secretary general making one of his periodic visits or better still, a Hollywood actor advocating for a UN agency. Angelina Jolie, it seems, can make even the most bureaucratic blood plump a little faster.
The UN’s high-profile visitors generally make few remarks of any substance. Like politicians their interest is not in saying something interesting but rather in saying nothing that could be too interesting.
An exception to this rule – and I was lucky enough to be in the Palais when he arrived – was the Vietnamese resistance leader General Giap.
The general, who died last year, was tiny, frail and had nothing to prove to anyone. He moved surrounded by a throng of journalists. “As you look back on the Vietnam War”, one asked, “do you have any regrets?”
General Giap stopped walking, thought for a few seconds and then replied: “We used too much torture. We tried to get information from people who had no real information. It was pointless.”
As western power declines, many of the international conventions currently in force are likely to be set aside. The nuclear non-proliferation treaty for example – designed to entrench the big powers’ nuclear superiority – will seem increasingly irrelevant. Environmental treaties that prevent developing countries creating an industrial base will be ignored even more blatantly than they are now.
But there is one treaty that surely everyone can agree should command international respect indefinitely: the UN Convention Against Torture. Experience suggests that, if they see the need, virtually any state will protect itself by using torture. And yet dispassionate onlookers can virtually always agree that doing so is wrong.
Moral philosophers have long debated the so-called ‘ticking bomb’ case. Suppose you have a prisoner who you know for a fact has planted a bomb that is just about to explode in a packed sports stadium. The prisoner is the sole possessor of information about its location. The case for torture seems strong. By briefly, albeit severely, hurting the bomber you can save many lives.
Arguments against range from protecting the bomber’s human rights – to the more pragmatic: how can you be sure he has the information you seek? Who decides if this is one of those rare cases in which torture is justified? Once you cross the line and start torturing people occasionally, do you end up doing it too often? As General Giap suggested do you start torturing people who have no information to give?
There are further considerations. Some torture victims will tell their tormentors whatever they want to hear just to make them stop. And as the German Gestapo found in the Second World War, some people are capable of taking their secrets to the grave thereby rendering the whole exercise futile.
The case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is instructive. He was water-boarded no fewer than 183 times. At some point he worked that his interrogator’s protocols included the length of time (40 seconds) he could have water poured down his throat. By the end he was seen counting down the seconds with his fingers.
Those familiar with the transcripts of his confessions say some of his information led to the arrests of leading jihadis. It also helped the US establish how the 9/11 attack had been put together, how strong Al-Qaeda was and what its future capabilities might be. In fact the most interesting new material in the 9/11 Commission Report came from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s interrogations.
But when the water boarding was over, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told the Red Cross that he had also given false information so as to confuse the Americans. And perhaps most significantly he failed to answer questions about the location of either Ayman Al Zawahiri (despite having met him shortly before his capture) and the man who eventually led the Americans to Abbottabad – Bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti. Other detainees subsequently told the Americans that Al Kuwaiti had been well known to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for years.
The Americans’ use of water boarding after 9/11 clearly carried costs. Perhaps most damagingly it fed Al-Qaeda’s narrative that the US is a hypocritical hegemon hell-bent on achieving global domination by any means.
Some may not be overly concerned that by using water boarding the US gave up a substantial amount of its moral high ground. Others may not be too bothered that torture involves human rights breaches. But surely everyone can agree that torturers cannot be certain of obtaining useful information.
The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.