Torture: The Struggle over a Peremptory Norm in a Counter-Terrorist Era

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The prohibition against torture has the status of a peremptory humanitarian norm.
That is, it is considered binding on all states and no derogation under any
circumstances is permitted. While the practice of torture has been widespread, until
recently it had come to be understood that no representatives of the state could
openly admit that they would use torture for fear of being removed from office and
of having their state ostracized by ‘civilized’ nations. Why,
then, given the rhetorical, moral and legal status of this prohibition, is torture
being debated, contemplated and even resurrected as an unsavoury and allegedly
necessary course of action in this counter-terrorist era? Why has the Bush
administration set about trying to reduce the scope of what is meant by torture and
degrading treatment, as well as to define a category of detainee who may be
subjected to coercive methods of interrogation? And what efforts are being made to
restore the status of a norm that has been seen as a distinctive kind of wrong?
These are the main questions discussed in an article which examines the relationship
between power and norms and the power of norms.

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  • Rosemary Foot

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