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Amnesty International - who should know better - professed to have been shocked by results of their own surveys:
"In preparing for its third international campaign to stop torture, Amnesty International conducted a survey of its research files on 195 countries and territories. The survey covered period from beginning of 1997 to mid-2000. Information on torture is usually concealed, and reports of torture are often hard to document, so figures almost certainly underestimate its extent. The statistics are shocking. There were reports of torture or ill-treatment by state officials in more than 150 countries. In more than 70, they were widespread or persistent. In more than 80 countries, people reportedly died as a result."
Countries and regimes abstain from torture - or, more often, claim to do so - because such overt abstention is expedient. It is a form of global political correctness, a policy choice intended to demonstrate common values and to extract concessions or benefits from others. Giving up this efficient weapon in law enforcement arsenal even in Damoclean circumstances is often rewarded with foreign direct investment, military aid, and other forms of support.
But such ethical magnanimity is a luxury in times of war, or when faced with a threat to innocent life. Even courts of most liberal societies sanctioned atrocities in extraordinary circumstances. Here law conforms both with common sense and with formal, utilitarian, ethics.
II. Ethical Considerations
Rights - whether moral or legal - impose obligations or duties on third parties towards right-holder. One has a right AGAINST other people and thus can prescribe to them certain obligatory behaviors and proscribe certain acts or omissions. Rights and duties are two sides of same Janus-like ethical coin.
This duality confuses people. They often erroneously identify rights with their attendant duties or obligations, with morally decent, or even with morally permissible. One's rights inform other people how they MUST behave towards one - not how they SHOULD, or OUGHT to act morally. Moral behavior is not dependent on existence of a right. Obligations are.
To complicate matters further, many apparently simple and straightforward rights are amalgams of more basic moral or legal principles. To treat such rights as unities is to mistreat them.
Take right not to be tortured. It is a compendium of many distinct rights, among them: right to bodily and mental integrity, right to avoid self-incrimination, right not to be pained, or killed, right to save one's life (wrongly reduced merely to right to self-defense), right to prolong one's life (e.g., by receiving medical attention), and right not to be forced to lie under duress.
None of these rights is self-evident, or unambiguous, or universal, or immutable, or automatically applicable. It is safe to say, therefore, that these rights are not primary - but derivative, nonessential, or mere "wants".
Moreover, fact that torturer also has rights whose violation may justify torture is often overlooked.
Consider these two, for instance:
The Rights of Third Parties against Tortured
What is just and what is unjust is determined by an ethical calculus, or a social contract - both in constant flux. Still, it is commonly agreed that every person has right not to be tortured, or killed unjustly.
Yet, even if we find an Archimedean immutable point of moral reference - does A's right not to be tortured, let alone killed, mean that third parties are to refrain from enforcing rights of other people against A?
What if only way to right wrongs committed, or about to be committed by A against others - was to torture, or kill A? There is a moral obligation to right wrongs by restoring, or safeguarding rights of those wronged, or about to be wronged by A.
If defiant silence - or even mere existence - of A are predicated on repeated and continuous violation of rights of others (especially their right to live), and if these people object to such violation - then A must be tortured, or killed if that is only way to right wrong and re-assert rights of A's victims.
This, ironically, is argument used by liberals to justify abortion when fetus (in role of A) threatens his mother's rights to health and life.
The Right to Save One's Own Life
One has a right to save one's life by exercising self-defense or otherwise, by taking certain actions, or by avoiding them. Judaism - as well as other religious, moral, and legal systems - accepts that one has right to kill a pursuer who knowingly and intentionally is bent on taking one's life. Hunting down Osama bin-Laden in wilds of Afghanistan is, therefore, morally acceptable (though not morally mandatory). So is torturing his minions.
When there is a clash between equally potent rights - for instance, conflicting rights to life of two people - we can decide among them randomly (by flipping a coin, or casting dice). Alternatively, we can add and subtract rights in a somewhat macabre arithmetic. The right to life definitely prevails over right to comfort, bodily integrity, absence of pain and so on. Where life is at stake, non-lethal torture is justified by any ethical calculus.
Utilitarianism - a form of crass moral calculus - calls for maximization of utility (life, happiness, pleasure). The lives, happiness, or pleasure of many outweigh life, happiness, or pleasure of few. If by killing or torturing few we (a) save lives of many (b) combined life expectancy of many is longer than combined life expectancy of few and (c) there is no other way to save lives of many - it is morally permissible to kill, or torture few.
III. The Social Treaty
There is no way to enforce certain rights without infringing on others. The calculus of ethics relies on implicit and explicit quantitative and qualitative hierarchies. The rights of many outweigh certain rights of few. Higher-level rights - such as right to life - override rights of a lower order.
The rights of individuals are not absolute but "prima facie". They are restricted both by rights of others and by common interest. They are inextricably connected to duties towards other individuals in particular and community in general. In other words, though not dependent on idiosyncratic cultural and social contexts, they are an integral part of a social covenant.
It can be argued that a suspect has excluded himself from social treaty by refusing to uphold rights of others - for instance, by declining to collaborate with law enforcement agencies in forestalling an imminent disaster. Such inaction amounts to abrogation of many of one's rights (for instance, right to be free). Why not apply this abrogation to his or her right not to be tortured?
Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, and eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He is the the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.