Important recent updates in torture and human rights research

In the course of the last few days a number of pieces have appeared that are of interest to this blog. They are each worth entires in their own right, but for now I’ll discuss one and point you to the other two (stay tuned for extended discussions in the next few days).

This week’s Economist features a briefing on torture’s effect on the intelligence community. It’s a review of the past eight years in intelligence and a well-reasoned argument from an information standpoint. It turns out that intelligent agents around the world are now reticent to work with US intelligence services for two reasons now: (1) for those countries who have laws against torture because we’ve used torture and (2) for those countries that use torture because our laws have created a climate in which their perpetration of torture will now come into the open. As many Western countries’ intelligence services rely on American services sharing intelligence, this is a loss for everyone’s national security.

Here’s a snippet that sums up the dilemma (actually from the “Leaders” entry about the briefing):

Torture throws sand into the gears of intelligence. At first harsh interrogation may well yield information, both valuable and valueless. But over time it chokes the defences of democratic societies, because their courts and political systems cannot digest it… The first lesson of the September 11th attacks was that intelligence agencies have to work more closely; “need to know” had to yield to “need to share”. These days, alas, it has become “need to get a lawyer”.

Point: the value of information gained through the use of torture is inconclusive, and the legal repercussions of torture (inherent in the “defences of democratic societies”) endanger intelligence sharing across agencies and between nations. Hm. Turns out torture is bad for the intelligence business in the long run as well. I suppose one could argue that it’s not the torture, it’s those dang laws we have. Civil liberty gets in the way of immorality once again.

This week’s Journal of the American Medical Association is chock full of human rights (as it is every August about this time). There’s a report on Physicians for Human Rights’ recent fact-finding trip to Darfur refugee camps in Chad (women are being raped), there’s a call by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for scientists to get more involved in human rights issues, and there are two scholarly pieces that deserve further discussion. My friend Jeff Sonis has a report on PTSD and how it relates to perceptions about the Khmer Rouge Tribunal among Cambodians, and some wonderful colleagues in Australia (including Zachary Steel, Derrick Silove, and Richard Bryant) review the literature on the effect of “torture and other potentially traumatic events” (all of them?) among war affected populations. Read them; I will too, and then blog.

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