Juan Mendez, UN Rapporteur, Warns 'We Will Eventually Pay The Price' For Torture
Britain and the US must beware the legacy of torture in the wake of the 'war on terror', a UN special adviser has warned.
"Every time the US tortures someone from the Muslim world, it's a recruitment poster for people who are willing to sacrifice even their own lives to attack the US," Juan Mendez, the UN rapporteur on torture, told the Huffington Post UK.
"It could also create domestic problems," he warns. "We pay the price for asking our civil servants to do terrible things. Eventually we don't feel we can trust them and we cannot rely on them. In Latin America, we let the police run wild and now society does not trust the police".
Mendez, a victim of torture himself in his native Argentina - where he was held for 18 months as a political prisoner, is urging the US to be more like the UK when it comes to launching investigations into the practice. He passionately argues any country that may have been complicit in torture must launch meaningful inquiries if they want to maintain their standing and integrity.
His words came as British foreign secretary William Hague said he recognised the pressing need to draw a line under allegations that British intelligence services were complicit in torture.
Speaking on Wednesday Hague said: "The very making of these allegations undermines Britain's standing in the world as a country that abhors torture".
The British government is setting up an independent inquiry into claims by Britons of Pakistani descent and others held at Guantanamo Bay.
Mendez is encouraged by the move, and wants to see President Barack Obama set up an investigation into the torture memos from Guantanamo Bay because: "It is not enough to say 'let bygones be bygones'. If you categorically refuse to investigate you are not living up to a clear international law obligation."
Even though Obama published the memos in 2009 that permitted the torture of detainees from the Bush era, he refused to conduct any prosecutions relating to them, arguing it was a "time for reflection, not retribution".
But Mendez claims that "even the Bush administration knew the torture memos were illegal. It is disingenuous, to say the least, that Bush says lawyers agreed that they were legal. If they were, he wouldn't have withdrawn them".
A large part of the problem with investigating torture crimes that there is "unfortunately very little popular support for such investigations in the United States".
This feeds into a wider issue of too little popular questioning of the US government and a fear of non-US citizens. "When someone is not part of your community it's a lot easier to only think about whether it makes you safe," he says, "people feel that if the United States has captured a man, then he must be a terrorist bent on our destruction".
So should even a country as fragile as Libya, for example, be pressured to uphold such rigorous standards of prosecution? Mendez unhesitatingly says it should, but "unfortunately the early signs from the Transitional National Council have been less than encouraging".
So far the new government has explained away torture and murder during the uprising as merely symptomatic of the fog of war, he said.
Mendez points out the interim Libyan government said that Colonel Gaddafi had been killed in combat, which turned out to be "completely wrong".
He is not entirely optimistic about the future: "It's difficult to know if they will turn around and do the right thing, but the same standards must apply to every government."