We must talk about torture

The title of my book tends to be a conversation stopper.

“What’s it called?” I get asked. “Liberal Democracies and the Torture of Their Citizens.”

“Wow,” people say. Then we talk about something – anything – else.

Torture is not a topic that makes for easy or comfortable conversation. Nor should it. But we need to talk, to think, about torture. About how, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a permissiveness developed around the use of torture by liberal democracies.

About how today, the current United States President thinks it’s acceptable, indeed good for his image, to publicly declare torture ‘absolutely works’. And about how those two things are, in a way, connected.

The reticence of many Australians to talk about torture in the period immediately following 9/11 was the major reason I wrote the PhD on which my book, Liberal Democracies and the Torture of Their Citizens, published in February 2017, is based.

The use of torture is fundamentally inconsistent with liberal democratic values and is banned, without exception, under international law. Yet in Australia, it seemed that people were reluctant to condemn the increasing reports of the use of torture in the war on terror.

This included reports of the torture of an Australian citizen who was subject to ‘extraordinary rendition’ – basically sent by the Americans to Egypt for interrogation, where he was tortured.

The Australian government of the day denied what the Americans were doing amounted to torture and suggested those alleging they were tortured shouldn’t be believed. For many years, the man’s claims went ignored.

Today of course, we have the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program.

Released in 2014, the report left us in no doubt that the Bush Administration did torture detainees in the war on terror.

My book is concerned primarily with the responses of three US allies to the torture of their own citizens after 9/11: Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada.

I did not set out to give each country a score card on how they defended (or failed to defend) human rights in the war on terror. Rather, I wanted to understand why these very similar liberal democracies responded differently when their citizens made allegations they were tortured.

Why, for a decade, did Australia remain indifferent to allegations two of its citizens were tortured?