‘Western democracies do not engage in torture to gather information’


In between casting aspersions on Michael Ignatieff, that’s what Peter Van Loan told the public safety committee two weeks ago: “Information that has been obtained by torture is not reliable. It should not be relied upon. There is ample understanding in the world that this is the case. That’s why western democracies do not engage in torture to gather information, because it is not reliable. It’s also because it’s a fundamental violation of human rights, but the probative value is limited as well.” 

To that effect, a little over a year ago, Maxime Bernier ordered that mention of the United States be removed from a Foreign Affairs manual that cautioned diplomats about countries that were known to have engaged in torture. “I regret the embarrassment caused by the public disclosure of the manual used in the department’s torture awareness training,” Bernier said. “It contains a list that wrongly includes some of our closest allies. I have directed that the manual be reviewed and rewritten.”

Unfortunately, here is the latest round of Bush-era torture memos, a carefully laid out explanation of what the previous American administration said could be done to detainees under the guise of information gathering.


‘Western democracies do not engage in torture to gather information’

  1. These are absolutely terrifying. 11 days of sleep deprivation? An insect box?

    • What? Are you some kind of terrorist? WHY DON’T YOU SUPPORT THE TROOPS, CAEL??!!!!

      • Oh… uh, I mean terrifying…uh.. in their efficiency?

  2. I was curious to see what aspersions were cast at committee by van Loan, who I find quite detestable. I found only the following:
    “Mr. Mark Holland: (…)Let me ask you very directly. Do you believe that information obtained by torture is unreliable and should not be used by the agencies under your ministerial control?
    Hon. Peter Van Loan: I’ll respond to a couple of aspects of what you said. First, in terms of Mr. O’Brian’s specific comments, my reading of them was that he was engaging in a kind of philosophical discussion of a hypothetical situation, not akin to what–what Mr. Ignatieff responded to in his book, The Lesser Evil, where he went on at quite some length about the occasions in which torture–”
    That’s it. Holland rightly forces van Loan to answer the question & Iggy’s name doesn’t come up again.

    It seems a bit off to claim someone is “casting aspersions” and imply they can’t read properly because, as Dion & Rae did during the 2006 Liberal Leadership Debates (remember when the LPC still had democratic leadership races?), they want to quote the man’s own words.

    In case you’ve forgotten, in the NYT Mag, on May 2nd 2004, Ignatieff said: “Permissible duress might include forms of sleep deprivation that do not result in lasting harm to mental or physical health, together with disinformation and disorientation (like keeping prisoners in hoods) that would produce stress.”

    Is this torture? Amnesty International thinks so: “Torturers sometimes choose methods, such as hooding or psychological torture, which leave few physical traces.” So does Human Rights Watch.

    Does Aaron Wherry agree or disagree with Amnesty & HRW? And since when is it illegitimate to quote a party leader’s embarrassing past positions when under questioning by one of that leader’s MPs? It’s precisely because it exposes the doublethink behind the questioning that it’s the favourite rhetorical technique of not just politicians but all of us, everywhere (ever been in a relationship & had an argument?). As much as Harper is attacked in this way, I think he should be attacked even more, especially on foreign policy issues (but Liberal MPs can’t, anymore, given our leader shared his positions). But why this reluctance on Wherry’s part to confront Iggy’s sayings & writings in full? Strange.

    • I don’t get it. Now that Iggy runs the show, why are you still a Eugene Forsey Liberal, instead of a Helen Forsey NDP-er?

      • A rose by any other name …….

    • It’s interesting that you mention Human Rights Watch, given their ED, Kenneth Roth, had this to say: “I myself would not always agree with the lines that Ignatieff draws, but these views cannot fairly be equated with support for torture or ‘torture lite’.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/michael-ignatieff-under-siege-523915.html).

      In fact, the next sentences in the piece you mention discredit your attack: “What crosses the line into the impermissible would be any physical coercion or abuse, any involuntary use of drugs or serums, any withholding of necessary medicines or basic food, water and essential rest.” The essential rest part clearly discredits any sleep deprivation tactic.

      If you read through The Lesser Evil, Ignatieff explicitly reject torture in any form and under any circumstances. In fact, pages 136-143 of that book present the strongest argument against torture I’ve heard yet.

      Peter Van Loan’s wasn’t just casting aspersions. He was making things up.

      • Alex Nixon, you strangely manage to miss Amnesty’s & HRW’s point, that sleep deprivation & hooding ARE so stressful as to be torture. In the cited HRW article, the conclusion is: “Stress and duress interrogation techniques were invented in the dungeons of the world’s most brutal regimes for only one purpose — to cause pain, distress and humiliation, without physical scars. When Bush administration officials and military commanders told soldiers to use methods designed for that purpose, while still treating detainees “humanely,” they were being naive at best and dishonest at worst. They should have known that once the purpose of inflicting pain is legitimized, those charged with the care and interrogation of prisoners will take it to its logical conclusion.”

        Sleep deprivation & hooding ARE equivalent to “physical coercion or abuse”, they ARE torture, and to pretend otherwise is “”Naive at best and dishonest at worst”? Remind you of anyone?

        Regrettably, van Loan wasn’t making things up. It’s ironic, because his own leader, by fully endorsing American foreign policy under Bush, was implicitly even more quiescent. But it’s the sad truth that the two major parties in Canada are now led by men who supported Bush’s foreign policy, although the Canadian government of the day and the Canadian public opposed it, the NDP is led by a onetime champion of the environment who now demagogically opposes one of the key instruments in fighting climate change, used by social-democratic governments elsewhere, namely a carbon tax, & were I a separatist, I might be ticked, as many were, that a one-time Trotskyite hard-core indépendantiste was ready to support an (as they would see it) Evil Trudeau-Dion Liberal Party Government for 18 months, minimum.

        But of all these, to have the party of the Charter, the party of Trudeau & Chrétien and an independent foreign policy, not to mention defending Federal prerogatives, led by a wannabe proconsul who engages in casuistry in regards to torture, not to mention panders to the provincialists, who only obtained his position through anti-democratic strongarm tactics, both at the constituency level in 2005 & at the national level in 2008-9 (perhaps professors of human rights are best placed to know how to ignore them?), is by far the worst of the lot, and most be opposed by all Liberals worthy of that word, “liberal”.

        As to those experts who agree & disagree with Ignatieff, I think you’re on pretty shaky ground there and might want to reconsider that line of argument. Type Gearty Ignatieff Torture into Google and you’ll find enough links demolishing your argument to last you a lifetime. I’ll pick only two, most revealing, quotes:

        From New Humanist: A particularly hostile review in the New York Times in July 2004 by international relations professor, Ronald Steel, began with this acerbic summary of Ignatieff’s thesis: “Michael Ignatieff tells us how to do terrible things for a righteous cause and come away feeling good about it.”

        FromThe Times, a headline: Ignatieff ducks debate with critics in torture row

        • I did not miss AI or HRW’s view on this at all. Nor have I ignored Rejali’s views on torture (you haven’t brought him up, but his book “Torture and Democracy” is seminal). I respect and agree with them.

          You, on the other hand:

          – Ignored that Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, disagrees with you. You seem think that HRW believes Ignatieff supports torture. Given their ED doesn’t believe that Ignatieff does, it shatters your argument.

          – Ignored that Ignatieff explicitly rejects torture In “The Lesser Evil”

          I’ve read Gearty. His arguments against “The Lesser Evil” is that it creates “the intellectual tools with which to justify his government’s expansionism”, not that Ignatieff supports torture. To wit: Professor Gearty in The Times Higher : “I made clear that he does say he is opposed to torture. But my take was that his talk of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is creating a framework that distinguishes people by reference to whether they are the good guys or the bad guys.” That is in the same article you directed me to
          (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=198265). And from the other article you directed me to: “Ignatieff rejects this argument – “as an exercise in the lesser evil it seems likely to lead to the greater” – along with other justifications for the use of torture by democratic societies.” (http://newhumanist.org.uk/1299).

          Gearty’s argument isn’t that Ignatieff supports torture (because he does not). Gearty’s argument is that “The Lesser Evil” creates an intellectual framework that starts us on a slippery slope that ends abuse, which is ironic given how much of “The Lesser Evil” is concerned with avoiding such a end result. That’s an interesting argument (although I think it misses the point of “The Lesser Evil”), but a completely different one than you’re imagining.

          Your experts, who you site as agreeing with you, in fact disagree with you.

          I don’t know how to be more clear with you: Ignatieff rejects torture in pg 136-143 of “The Lesser Evil.” Take it out of a library and read it.

          As for the other things, that’s a whole other discussion, and one that doesn’t belong in a discussion about torture. There’s a world of difference between Human Rights and internal Liberal Party matters. Let’s try to keep perspective here.

          Besides, we’re talking about the Liberal party of Canada. Backroom deals and procedural matters being used to block opponents has been used since the birth of the party. That doesn’t make it right (or wrong, for that matter), but it does mean that Ignatieff’s keeping with tradition.

  3. Look, Alex Nixon, I think hooding & sleep deprivation are torture. HRW, Amnesty, United Nations’ Convention, etc.. I think torture is inhuman and unjustifiable. So do they, and there is a United Nations Convention, etc.. Iggy & you are free not to consider hooding & sleep deprivation torture, or if it is, it’s OK, or OK in extreme circumstances, or wrong but justifiable, etc. etc.. That’s your prerogative. But if these are your views, then it says a lot about you and I wouldn’t want you, any more than Iggy, in any position of responsibility, ever.

    If Iggy thought he could get away with this tosh, he wouldn’t duck debates. I am well aware of Gearty’s point, and Roth, who was most kind to phrase his differences with his friend as not agreeing with where the lines should be drawn. Given your apparent ignorance of how Iggy is viewed in the field, I was directing you to use a search that would allow you to easily find numerous articles, that link to other articles, on and on, to establish the low esteem in which Iggy is now held. I have had the unfortunate displeasure of wading through pretty much all Iggy’s murky superficial musings on weighty topics, swamps taken as puddles and puddles depicted as swamps.

    Your conclusion was sadly in keeping with the rest, and if you are looking for validation, given your apparent views, allow me to say your are most “Ignatieffian” in your rhetoric. I am sure you will take it as a compliment. For you, apparently, moral issues do not represent a seamless web, but discrete instances, some we can ignore, others not. I’d say that in that case, your moral framework, being not a framework but just a lot of odds and ends you pick and choose as suits, doesn’t amount to much at all. I’d say the personal is political. But you try to diminish the importance of any issue that is contrary to your preferences or interests. First torture isn’t torture, and if it is, it isn’t that bad, then it’s unrelated from any other matters, and even those matters, of democracy & rights, are not sufficiently crucial to be taken seriously, and even then, they may not be all that wrong, heck they may even be right!, and finally, well, anyway, that’s the way things have always been. Tradition. The last refuge of the conservative scoundrel.

    Iggy & you can run (Ignatieff Ducks Debate With Critics In Torture Row), but he & you can’t hide from that fateful sentence: “Permissible duress might include forms of sleep deprivation that do not result in lasting harm to mental or physical health, together with disinformation and disorientation (like keeping prisoners in hoods) that would produce stress.”. Maybe it was just a slip. Maybe he’s changed his mind. But it took him years to make that bizarre accusatory Tua Culpa about Iraq (I was ever so slightly & understandably wrong for all the right reasons and my critics were sort-of right but for all sorts of awful bad reasons so they don’t count), and I haven’t read or heard anything about that sentence yet. Maybe it’ll come, if he feels it’s necessary to become PM.

    As I say, Alex Nixon, it’s a free country. I can’t stop you from sharing Iggy’s views. Hooding? OK. Sleep Deprivation? OK. I’ve done what I can to make you see things differently. Perhaps, upon consideration, over time, you might. But it’s pretty clear that’s not going to happen today. So all the best. I hope you do have a think about this stuff. But I won’t be losing any sleep over it.

    • Your argument here seems to break down into three parts:

      Argument One: Sleep Deprivation and hooding are torture.

      Of course they are. I completely agree with you, HRW, AI, and Rejali. That’s what I said in my previous post.

      Argument Two: Torture is unacceptable and wrong.

      Of course it is. I completely agree with you, HRW, AI, and Rejali. That’s what I said in my previous post.

      Argument Three: Michael Ignatieff supports torture.

      Here’s where I disagree with you. I don’t think he supports torture, and The Lesser Evil comes out against it. When he wrote what you quoted, he was asking where the line between coercion and torture is. He then rejects torture in all forms. Gearty and Roth agree with me on this.

      I know how Ignatieff is viewed by some in the field. I am largely concerned whether such a view is deserved or not. I believe that it is not. Moreover, the problems that those “in the field” have little to do with torture; rather they believe that he created a linguistic framework that allows torture apologists to justify torture.

      So I’m genuinely at a loss for what your arguments are.

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