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Erosion of human rights

Patricia d'Ardenne on American justice

Torture Team: Deception, Cruelty and the Compromise of Law, Erosion of human rights, Philippe Sands (Allen Lane, £20)

This is a book about the erosion of human rights by the US in the wake of 9/11 and its preoccupation with eliminating terrorism by any means. It describes the actions of Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush Administration, who signed away the human rights of prisoners- in the form of the Haynes memo- in the guise of 'counter resistance techniques' in December 2002. In doing so, the Secretary of State of Defence violated Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, the US Army manual of Instructions on Interrogation (FM3452) and the principles of American conduct of war. Sands quotes President Abraham Lincoln 'military necessity does not admit of cruelty nor of torture to extract confessions'.

The book begins with the 'kick-off', describing the approval of eighteen new and aggressive interrogation techniques - i.e. torture - together with a legal opinion, to be used by the US Government for terrorist suspects. There were three categories:

1. included yelling and deception.

If that failed to produce results,

2. included sensory deprivation, humiliation, and the use of individual phobias, e.g. dogs - to induce and maintain stress.

If that failed to produce the desired effect, there remained,

3. which included grabbing and poking, the threat of death, exposure to cold, and the infamous 'water-boarding'. The latter was described by Dick Cheney as 'a drink in the water' and 'a no-brainer, if it could save lives'. As if this were not enough, there is a photograph of the original memo with Rumsfeld's sarcastic comment, 'I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?'

This explosive opening is then followed by chapters detailing the sequel to this event, including the revelations of Abu Ghraib Prison, the conduct of the military in Basra, and the plight of detainees in Guantanamo Bay. Sands, himself an international lawyer, gained access to many of the key characters in this setting including Doug Feith, Under Secretary of Defence for Policy, Major Dunlavey (Commanding Officer, Guantanamo) and Diane Beaver (Staff judge Advocate), and General Richard Myers ((Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff) and General James Hill (Commander US Southern Command aka SOUTHCOM).

Their interviews are surprisingly candid and revealing, and the author admits to the professionalism and commitment to public duty of some, as well as the openness of American society in allowing him access. The interviews also say something about showing how decent, hard pressed public servants of the administration suspend their judgement and obey orders from high command- many of the characters were themselves directly accountable to Rumsfeld.

The next section of the book 'Comeback' reveals the unravelling of this violation of human rights and the characters involved in the process. Lastly, the book - in a section called 'Responsibility' - takes us right up to 2008, in the wake of the exposure, the discovery of the paper trails left by inexpert military lawyers, and the increasingly implausible denials of the Defence Department to hide its instigation. The author questions the role of international lawyers who have to give legal opinions on what are clearly sensitive political issues, and asks about their special role in upholding the values of international law and human rights.

The author intersperses each chapter with the Interrogation Log of Detainee 063, better known as Mohammed al-Qahatani, describing in detail the physical and psychological implications for one prisoner as the result of the Haynes memo. It makes for shocking reading - not just the brutality of his treatment - rather that it was sanctioned by the Bush administration in writing. The indexing and layout are scholarly. The method is transparent and fair, and the content is of huge political and legal significance. This is not a book just for specialists; it is accessible to any lay reader wanting to understand how our rights become so easily eroded during times of threat. Highly recommended reading!