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Belinda Cooper: Crucial Questions About Torture

Belinda CooperLast week, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg announced a decision in a German case, Gäfgen v. Germany, that is relevant to the “war on terror,” even though the case itself had nothing to do with terrorism. In 2002, a German law student, Magnus Gäfgen, kidnapped and killed an 11-year-old child. In the course of subsequent ransom demands, he was caught by the police, who, at the time, believed the child was still alive. Under orders from a superior, a police officer threatened Gäfgen with great pain if he didn’t tell them where the boy was (they were prepared to follow through on the threat, though this never happened). Gäfgen thereupon confessed, and the boy’s body was found. Later, after being informed that the coerced confession could not be used against him, he repeated it. The German courts found him guilty, based on the later confession; Gäfgen then appealed to Strasbourg, claiming his rights to freedom from torture and fair trial had been violated. The police officer and his superior, meanwhile, were found guilty of coercion and instruction to coerce. Because their motive was saving the child’s life, however, and the situation was one of great pressure, the German court found mitigating circumstances and suspended their sentences—in effect finding them guilty but refraining from punishing them. The case set off a countrywide debate in Germany about the legitimacy of torture, obviously playing into broader concerns with the use of torture in the “war on terror” and the revelations from Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay.

David A. Andelman: The UN Befouls Lac Léman

David A. Andelman, EditorGENEVA—Here on the glistening shores of Lac Léman, large chunks of what should be the best of the United Nations are quietly being taken hostage. Perhaps it’s the DNA of failure that’s embedded in the walls of the old Palais des Nations where the League of Nations once met, without a single American delegate, and failed to prevent the rise of Nazism, Krystallnacht, the Holocaust and ultimately the Second World War. More likely, it’s some instinct of bureaucrats. Once they get their hands on a sinecure of mediocrity, they’re inclined to do their damndest to hang onto it, no matter how grotesquely distorted it becomes thanks to the single-mindedness of a small minority of the world that believes more passionately that their religion, their political system or simply their right to rule should hold sway. As any UN guide will explain to his or her captive audience of international tourists, the UN center in Geneva is devoted largely to humanitarian, social and economic issues, leaving politics, diplomacy and the preservation of peace to the more accomplished diplomats back in the Secretariat building on the East Side of Manhattan. So it’s here, especially in the critical human rights area that things have gone so badly wrong. Ruth Wedgwood, an independent human rights expert in Geneva for the past five years, a member of World Policy Journal’s editorial board, and a brilliant professor of international law and diplomacy at The Johns Hopkins University in Washington, writes that “regional politics still drags like a befouled trawler net across the ideals of the United Nations organization.” What she means, and what apparently caused the resignation of the brilliant and effective UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Canadian jurist Louise Arbour, is the fact that the 132 members of the so-called Group of 77 “southern states” representing the developing world, and most specifically its 56-member Islamic subset, have effectively hijacked the entire human rights process and used it as a mechanism to beat up on Israel and its “treatment” of Palestinians. There’s been no mention of Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, where Judge Arbour previously served as chief prosecutor for war crime trials. Nor, indeed of most of the other most egregious violators of human rights of their own or neighboring citizens, particularly in the third world.

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