No, Mr. Trump: torture can never be legal

01.02.2017

An op-ed by Philip Grant

President Trump’s support for torture goes against everything TRIAL International fights for.

In a recent television interview, the new President of the United States (US) unambiguously defended the use of torture against suspected terrorists. Referring to ISIS atrocities, he argued that “we have to fight fire with fire”, concluding that waterboarding – a torture method simulating drowning – was instrumental to making the US safer.

Mr. Trump’s bid to keep torture “within the bounds of what you’re allowed to do legally” is all but a trickery: torture is never legal – and has not been for a long time.

An unbreachable international ban

Arguing that torture may, in some circumstances, be legal rests on the dangerous assumption that its use can be “moderate” or “proportional”. But no: torture is the most profound violation of an individual’s moral and physical integrity. It tolerates no half-measures. If “minor” mistreatments are allowed, where is the threshold set? Could so-called “emergency scenarios” justify torture? Such trade-offs are murky water indeed and the downslide all too quick. History abounds with examples thereof.

This is why torture has been unequivocally prohibited in many international treaties: The Convention Against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Geneva Conventions, to name but a few. The US is party to all of them.

Even beyond international treaties, torture has long-since been considered as jus cogens: a fundamental, overriding principles of international law, from which no derogation is permitted. Subsequently, the ban on torture applies to all States without exception – even those that have not ratified international treaties relating to this crime.

So even if Mr. Trump signed the US out of all treaties it is now party to, the fact would remain intact: torture is illegal. No matter where, no matter how, and no matter against whom.

Torturers will be punished

TRIAL International fights torture and other international crimes daily, by ensuring its authors are brought to justice. The recent arrest of Gambia’s ex-Minister Ousman Sonko proves that those who resort to – or condone – torture, regardless of their rank, can be prosecuted and punished.

In 2011, when former US President George W. Bush announced his visit to Geneva, TRIAL was contacted by NGOs working on behalf of torture victims in Guantanamo. The organization lent its legal expertise to prepare a criminal complaint against Mr. Bush, who shortly after cancelled his trip. Today, just like in the past, there can be no double measures: Mr. Trump will be held accountable too.

I sincerely hope that the new President will reconsider his support for torture. In the meantime, civil society organizations – starting with TRIAL – will keep fighting for the right of every individual to integrity and protection. We will not give way to fear and will stand firmly on the side of justice.

Philip Grant, Director
@PhilipGrant40

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