The Anti-Empire Report
Being serious about torture. Or not.
In Cambodia they’re once again endeavoring to hold trials to bring some former senior Khmer Rouge officials to justice for their 1975-79 war crimes and crimes against humanity. The current defendant in a United Nations-organized trial, Kaing Guek Eav, who was the head of a Khmer Rouge torture center, has confessed to atrocities, but insists he was acting under orders.1 As we all know, this is the defense that the Nuremberg Tribunal rejected for the Nazi defendants. Everyone knows that, right? No one places any weight on such a defense any longer, right? We make jokes about Nazis declaring: “I was only following orders!” (“Ich habe nur den Befehlen gehorcht!”) Except that both the Bush and Obama administrations have spoken in favor of it. Here’s the new head of the CIA, Leon Panetta: “What I have expressed as a concern, as has the president, is that those who operated under the rules that were provided by the Attorney General in the interpretation of the law [concerning torture] and followed those rules ought not to be penalized. And … I would not support, obviously, an investigation or a prosecution of those individuals. I think they did their job.”2 Operating under the rules … doing their job … are of course the same as following orders.
The UN Convention Against Torture (first adopted in 1984), which has been ratified by the United States, says quite clearly, “An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.” The Torture Convention enacts a prohibition against torture that is a cornerstone of international law and a principle on a par with the prohibition against slavery and genocide.