Eric Prokosch

May 2007

[English] [français]

Dear Martin,




Lungern (Switzerland) - 30 April – 2 May 2007






2nd May 2007




I am pleased to be with you here today. This is perhaps the fifth time I have addressed an ACAT or FIACAT meeting. In my first appearance, at the General Assembly of ACAT-France in 1985, I described the strategy for the prevention of torture which Amnesty International (AI) was following in its second worldwide Campaign for the Abolition of Torture which was then in progress. On a later occasion, I presented elements of a possible general theory of action against torture. But today's meeting takes place in a new phase of our effort, a phase in which we may feel that we have lost ground and must find out how to regain it.

We are all part of a worldwide movement to end torture and ill-treatment. We need to develop a common sense of where we are going, how to get there, and who we are – what our movement consists of and how its component parts can best work together.

I myself first got involved in the issue of torture in 1983 when, as a staff member of the International Secretariat of AI, I was asked to organize AI's second worldwide Campaign for the Abolition of Torture, due to commence in 1984. I had to learn about the issue and think about the objectives of the campaign and what materials we should provide for our members.

In the Report on Torture, published 10 years earlier during AI's first Campaign for the Abolition of Torture, I found a presentation of the "ticking bomb" scenario, accompanied by arguments against torture. But I thought: "Why do we have to get into this at all? Torture and ill-treatment is prohibited under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international human rights treaties. The UN Declaration against Torture calls it an offence to human dignity. The governments of the world have agreed that torture must not be permitted. We must call on them to live up to their promises. There is no need to give excuses for our position."

So we did not provide any materials on the "ticking bomb" argument for the campaign, and the AI sections participating in the campaign did not complain. We were able to carry on a huge public campaign against torture for nearly two years without ever having to confront the argument in any concerted way.

In the campaign, we attacked torture by presenting detailed accounts of its infliction in individual cases. These examples gave compelling evidence of the cruelty of torture and showed how the law was subverted to afford impunity for the perpetrators. Through the voices of its victims we could break through the dehumanization which is part of the ideology of torture and a key element of its justifications.

It looked then as though the argument might be obsolete. But now it has come back with a vengeance. Soon after the attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States and the inauguration of President Bush's "war on terror", statements by US commentators began to appear, citing the "ticking bomb" scenario and arguing that torture might sometimes be justified.

At that moment, our worldwide movement against torture made a big mistake. We should have denounced such arguments, voicing incredulity and outrage, and seeking renewed assurances of the official US opposition to torture and ill-treatment. Had we done so, we might have stopped the discussion and perhaps even deterred the Bush Administration from resorting to torture. But our response was weak, and the argument took hold. Now, I believe, we must confront it and find out how to defeat it.

There are quite a few good answers to the argument. But how do the answers fit together, and how should we deploy them?

What makes the argument so difficult to defeat is that it makes sense intuitively:

ˇ         First, everyone knows that there are "ticking bombs" (and ticking bombers), as well as other people who know that an attack is about to take place. Such attacks are a reality, and people are rightly afraid of them.

ˇ         Second, it is quite conceivable that such plotters may occasionally fall into the hands of the police, in time for the attack to be thwarted, were they to reveal the necessary information.

ˇ         Third, everyone knows that pain can sometimes induce a person to talk. This is a common childhood experience ("I'll twist your arm behind your back if you don't tell me") and a scenario realistically portrayed in endless TV police dramas.

In defeating the argument, we must be ready to respond to each of these popular perceptions honestly. We must combat the "ticking bomb" scenario with our minds and with our hearts. With our minds, we must analyze the logic of the arguments and find supporting evidence for our position. With our hearts, we must seek to understand the fears of those who are swayed by the scenario, and see how to address them.

On the threat of terrorist attacks, we must be ready to refer to the essential role of the security services and the lawful methods used by them to prevent such attacks.

In response to the notion that the planter of a "ticking bomb" would talk if torture was used, we must insist on the reality of torture. Torture is not a magic pill which instantaneously and unfailingly obtains correct information. It is, rather, a method of destroying a person, mentally and physically, partially or completely. In the course of torture, the victim may say certain things, which may or may not be true. There is no guarantee of finding the ticking bomb.

The "ticking bomb" argument rests on the notion of the "lesser evil": the assertion that breaking the universal ban on torture is a lesser evil than allowing a murderous attack to proceed. In response, we must be prepared to show that the dilemma, posed in these terms, is a false one. The evil of a terrorist attack is to be prevented by other, lawful means. The evil of torture might equally be advocated for other purposes. Such exceptions were rejected by the community of states when they agreed on the universal prohibition of torture.

What I have spoken of so far is the preparation of our defence against the "ticking bomb" argument, which is really a defence against attempts to win popular acceptance of torture under the guise of protecting society against a perceived threat. But while defending its prohibition, we must continue with our general offensive against torture. That offensive has two main thrusts: demonstrating the cruelty of torture, and insisting on its illegality, which is not a dry legal matter but rather the accomplishment of centuries of advancement in the enjoyment of human rights.

We need to engage in a close scrutiny of the factual, legal and philosophical aspects of the "ticking bomb" argument and consider the possible responses to it in communicating with different audiences. My hope is that at the end of this exercise we will have found the way to a coherent, comprehensive response to the "ticking bomb" challenge. Our organizations, FIACAT and others, can then translate the response into training packages, speakers' kits and other materials for use by their members in public debates.

In our long-term effort to end torture, we need a vision of a world without torture and, along with it, a sense of the strategic steps to be taken towards that goal.

When in its campaign in 1984 AI moved beyond the denunciation of torture to call on governments to live up to their own demands for prevention as articulated in the Declaration against Torture, that was a strategic advance. The adoption of the Convention against Torture, the adoption of the Optional Protocol to that Convention and the creation of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture were strategic advances.

In what has happened since 9/11, in the institution of torture by the Bush Administration and the reappearance of the "ticking bomb" argument, the anti-torture movement has suffered a strategic setback. If we can overcome the setback, discredit what the Bush Administration has done and defeat the "ticking bomb" argument, we will emerge from the experience stronger than before.


Eric Prokosch

former research coordinator, Amnesty International, London

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