After CIA torture report: rebuilding a culture of rights

By Savi Hensman
December 11, 2014

A US Senate report revealing widespread use of torture by the Central Intelligence Agency has stirred up heated debate. International human rights activists have called for those responsible to be held to account, though CIA director John Brennan has defended the agency’s record.

It also appears that extreme brutality, sometimes resulting in death, probably did not yield any useful intelligence which could not have been gained by other means. Torture is usually ineffective as well as barbaric.

US president Barack Obama has condemned what happened. But in view of alleged involvement by senior figures in the current and past administrations, his government is in an embarrassing position. So are key international allies who played a part, including the UK authorities.

Gross human rights violations by the US state and other powers are by no means new. But such abuses have probably become more open, and publicly acceptable, over the past decade-and-a-half. The ‘war on terror’ has been used as an excuse, though brutalising suspects and alienating communities probably does more to promote than prevent terrorism.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed just over 66 years ago. It covers not only violations such as torture and prolonged detention without a fair trial but also other forms of harm, such as public policies that unnecessarily leave people to starve or die of preventable diseases.

While some schools and youth projects worldwide carry out human rights education, and campaigners internationally struggle for human rights, many people do not understand why these matter.

Religious thinkers had an important input in developing the Declaration. Yet today faith-based organisations often do little to promote awareness of why such rights matter unless their own interests, or those of their associates, are threatened.

More generally, discussions on ethics sometimes suggest that a ‘culture of rights’ has gone too far and that the emphasis should shift to responsibilities. Yet human rights principles do involve duties, to protect the wellbeing of others.

There is a risk of implying that human rights have to be earned, even if this is unintended, and that some people do not deserve protection. The grim findings of the report show where such thinking can lead.

In popular culture, it seems to me that – at least on UK television – both home-grown and US-made thrillers often take a relaxed attitude to vigilantism and mistreatment of suspects. This is, I think, different from the norm thirty or forty years ago, when heroes were expected to outsmart villains rather than break the law themselves.

Justice for those whose mistreatment has been revealed in the Senate report is important. But preventing such abuses in future is an even greater priority. This includes changing not only processes but also understanding and values.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

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