Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Torture Parallel between France and the US

As we like to stress on this blog, France and the U.S. have a lot more in common than some people might think - even sometimes in creepy matters. Take the heated topic du jour - torture.

Of course, while the U.S. has used torture recently in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo, the last time the French were known for exercising torture was more than 40 years ago in Algeria and Indochina (the "French school" of torture was eventually exported to Chile and Argentina to help them fight wars against leftists).
So it seems that torture is not just the panacea of brutal dictatorships. Not only has it been used by democracies such as France, Britain or the United-States but it has been developed and refined mostly in democratic nations.
The difference is that while it is much talked about in the main-stream media in the United-States, either through debates or fiction, it is still a very touchy subject in France, hardly ever mentioned.

When the memoirs of General Aussaresses, in which the author acknowledged the official use of torture by the French army in Algeria, were published, a French court condemned the publishers on the ground that it was an "apology for war crimes". Last Thursday (Jan. 14), the European Court for Human Rights condemned France. The Court reiterated that freedom of expression within the meaning of Article 10 was applicable not only to “information” or “ideas” regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offended, shocked or disturbed.

Yet, there is a lot to learn from the eerie parallel between the French then and the US now- notably that besides the moral problem it represents, torture simply does not work.

As Shawn McHale, associate professor of history and international affairs in George Washington University reminds us :

A democracy like the United States, France has long affirmed support for human rights. Like the United States, it resorted to extreme forms of coercion as part of a war against what it called "terrorists."

When we look at Iraq today, many parallels to Algeria jump out at us: the ambivalence toward the Geneva conventions on war, the diminished civilian judicial authority over the conduct of war, the problem of ambiguously defined command authority and the creation of "extra legal" spaces in which clandestine use of coercion can thrive.

The French failure in Algeria also suggests some questions that must be asked about Iraq.

As for Jack Bauer, even he seems to have second thoughts about torture. As for the French, what they need is their own Jacques for this dark side of French contemporary history to be known.


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