Research fellowship: tortured ethics

Project Details

Layman's description

We are accustomed to thinking of torture as the needless infliction of cruelty by public officials, and we assume that lawyers and clinicians are best placed to speak about its causes and effects. However, it has not always been so. The category of torture is a very specific way of thinking about violence, and our current understandings of the term are rooted in recent twentieth-century history. This research project explores how the tensions between post-Cold War armed conflict, human rights activism, medical notions of suffering, and concerns over immigration have produced a distinctively new way of thinking about torture, which is saturated with notions of law and trauma.
The research asks what forms of suffering and cruelty can be acknowledged when looking at the world through the narrow legal category of torture. The research focuses on the recent history of Britain but draws wider comparative conclusions, tracing attempts to recognize survivors and perpetrators across the fields of asylum, criminal law, international human rights, and military justice. Based on extensive archival research and ethnographic fieldwork, the research project argues that the problem of recognition rests not in the inability of the survivor to communicate but in our inability to listen and take responsibility for the injustice before us.

Key findings

The central argument coming out of the research is that although the legal category of torture appears to prioritize individual suffering and cruelty, the turn to law can make it very difficult to recognize specific survivors and perpetrators. In part, this is because torture can be inflicted in ways that produce few identifiable traces. The twentieth century saw the development of coercive interrogation techniques specially designed to leave behind no evidence. However, the issue is broader than simply the techniques through which torture is perpetrated. Although the prohibition of torture may be absolute in principle, in practice it becomes slippery and indeterminate when applied to concrete cases, making demands for forms of proof that are often unobtainable. Legal processes can therefore give with one hand, promising to protect and prosecute, and take away with another, by setting conditions that are very hard to meet. In this context, legal discussions of torture tend to break down into arguments about due process and the rule of law. The suffering of specific individuals and the intentions of particular perpetrators melt into the background. We are left with broad ethical injunctions and general procedural guidelines. To stress the historical contingency of the legal category of torture is not to say that people do not act cruelly, and that people do not suffering. Rather, it is to ask why this person’s suffering and not that of the next is taken into account, why this form of pain and not another is deemed significant, and why this action and not another is recognized as torture. The project treats torture as, above all, a problem of recognition. One of the dominant cultural images of the torture survivor is a body wracked by pain, crying out in anguish, unable to express what has happened to him or her. However, the problem of recognition is not caused by the inability of the survivor to communicate. The issue is, instead, one of our ability to listen, to see, to name, and to take responsibility for what is in front of us. The key question is therefore what types of victim and perpetrator, what forms of innocence and guilt, do legal understandings of torture allow us to acknowledge? Focusing on the United Kingdom in a book about torture may at first glance appear a little peculiar. There is an implicit bias in many social science studies of human rights toward states that are seen as being unstable, authoritarian, and illiberal. However, in this process not only are the often-contradictory ways in which human rights are embedded within established liberal democracies ignored but, perhaps more important, it is often assumed that human rights are only a real problem for non-Western states. Torture, as a category, is often used to draw a line between the civilized and the uncivilized, the compassionate and the barbarous. Focusing on the United Kingdom, rather than on, say, Iraq, might help us rethink where those boundaries lie.
Effective start/end date1/08/0831/07/11


  • ESRC: £332,170.00


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