Present times continue to be marked by the
fight against terrorism, and there is every likelihood
that this will remain the case for some years to come.
The manner in which this challenge is met has
particular significance for democratic societies
committed to human rights and the rule of law. Will
they find the way to fulfil the obligation to protect their
citizens whilst at the same time upholding the basic
values which form part of their foundations?
There are clear indications that, to date, the
right way has not always been found. For instance,
reports abound of persons being seized and spirited
away without due process, and of incommunicado
detention in secret holding facilities. Those reports
have been lent further credence by recent legal
proceedings; in June 2005, Italian judicial authorities
issued arrest warrants against 13 foreign agents for the
“aggravated abduction” of a person in a Milan street in
February 2003; also in June 2005, a German court
acknowledged that witnesses whom it had sought (in
vain) to hear were being held in “unknown locations”.
And evidence continues to come to light of resort to
torture and inhuman or degrading treatment in various
places, in the context of the fight against terrorism. It is
important in this area to be clear about one’s
understanding of the terms being used; to give a
concrete example, in the CPT’s opinion, to immerse
persons under water so as to make them believe they
might drown is not a professional interrogation
technique, it is an act of torture.
Employing methods of the kind described
above (or aiding and abetting others to do so) is not the
way democratic societies are meant to go about their
business, not even in the most testing of times. But
there can be little doubt that such methods are on
occasion being used today by agents of democratic
societies, including in certain parts of Europe. This
type of action will not serve anyone’s interests well.

The universal recognition of the prohibition of
torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, and the
collective enforcement of that human right at European
level, occurred in the immediate aftermath of a world
war, during which untold barbarities were committed
in pursuit of intolerable ideologies. And it was a time
of continuing uncertainty and danger. Is there anything
so different about the international climate of today
that would justify a change of course? In fact, it is
precisely at a time of emergency that the prohibition of
torture and inhuman or degrading treatment is
particularly relevant, and the strength of a society’s
commitment to the fundamental value it embodies truly
put to the test.
Like the prohibition of slavery, the prohibition
of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment is one of
those few human rights which admit of no derogations.
Talk of “striking the right balance” is misguided when
such human rights are at stake. Of course, resolute
action is required to counter terrorism; but that action
cannot be allowed to degenerate into exposing people
to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.
Democratic societies must remain true to the values
that distinguish them from others.

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