But we don’t call it ‘torture’! Norm contestation during the US ‘War on Terror’

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International law has become the reference frame that establishes legitimacy for international encounters, but paradoxically and at the same time international law itself has become increasingly contested. This paper analyses the relationship between norm acceptance and norm implementation and examines an instance of norm contestation in the context of the US ‘war on terror’. The focus is on the use of torture or ‘enhanced interrogation methods’ during the Bush Presidency. The so-called ‘torture memos’ that were made public in recent years shed light on different arguments that were used by the government at the time to justify their actions and to show that they were in line with existing international legal obligations. The paper seeks to assess the validity of international agreements by analysing compliance and actual meaning (‘meaning-in-use’) of fundamental international human rights norms that are being contested through different interpretations and usages on the domestic level.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)176-197
JournalInternational Politics
Issue number2
Early online date24 Feb 2016
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016


  • torture
  • law and norms
  • human rights
  • norm contestation


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