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Law School Panelists Debate Definitions of Torture


Torture and the War Against Terrorism

Panelists during a Law School forum agree that torture is wrong but debate interpretations of what constitutes torture.

From left to right: Martin Flaherty, J.D., professor of law at Fordham Law School and co-director of the Joseph R. Crowley Program in International Human Rights; Jean-Pierre Kamwa, political dissident from Cameroon; Allen Keller, M.D., program director for Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture; Scott Horton, attorney and human rights activist; and David B. Rivkin, Jr., partner with Baker & Hostetler LLP

Earlier this year, the discovery of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the subsequent disclosure of a U.S. Department of Justice memo that seemed to stretch the parameters of acceptable interrogation methods erupted into a worldwide debate regarding the use of torture in the war against terrorism. That discussion continued at Fordham Law School on Sept. 14 during a forum featuring legal and medical experts, and a torture victim from Africa.

“Torture represents a worldwide public-health epidemic,” said Allen Keller, Ph.D., program director at the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. “When the United States in any way validates torture, it is basically throwing kerosene on the flames of an already burgeoning crisis.”

Keller, whose organization provides medical and psychological treatment for survivors of torture and their families, said that torture has been documented in more than 100 countries around the world, and victims of torture can suffer devastating, long-term physical and mental effects.

While disavowing the use of torture to interrogate prisoners, Washington, D.C., attorney David B. Rivkin said that the kind of enemy that the United States and the coalition forces are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan requires the use of traditionally unconventional methods of interrogation that fall into a gray area.

“Certain things are clearly torture…and there are things that are clearly not torture, but there are certain things that fall in between,” said Rivkin, who has held legal and policy positions under former U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. “That is what needs analysis.”

Kevin Horton, a lawyer and human rights activist, read a list of high-ranking officials in the current administration who he said have created an environment that breeds abuse. Horton insisted that the war against terrorism could only be won if the United States is beyond reproach in its handling of detainees and prisoners.

“The global war on terror is not a war that will be won with guns and bullets alone,” said Horton, who provided counsel to many leaders of the Russian human rights and democracy movements in the late 1980s. “Understanding Abu Ghraib is imperative to finding out what is wrong with the war on terror. The war can only be won from a position of moral superiority.”

Martin Flaherty, a professor at Fordham Law School and the co-director of the Joseph R. Crowley Program in International Human Rights, pointed to a prominent distinction in the monitoring of human rights abuse since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Prior to 9/11, human rights watchdogs tended to scrutinize other countries for human rights abuses. … However, in the post-9 /11 world, these groups began looking toward the United States for violations,” said Flaherty. “And reasons the U.S. government is giving, such as national security, are summarily similar excuses given by other governments that have traditionally had poor records in protecting human rights.”

The panel discussion was sponsored by the Joseph R. Crowley Program in International Human Rights and the Fordham chapter of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.

— Michael Larkin

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