The Torture of own Citizens in the War on Terror: Understanding Responses of Liberal Democracies

On Thursday 14 August, the Australian Human Rights Centre hosted a talk with Cynthia Banham, PhD candidate at the ANU’s Regulatory Institutions Network in the Centre for International Governance and Justice. A lawyer and former foreign affairs, defence and political correspondent, Ms. Banham combines a study of law, politics and social action in a comparative analysis of responses by liberal democracies to the torture of their citizens detained in the “war on terror”.

Examining the disparity between policies of very similar federal governments in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, Ms. Banham’s thesis argues that the strength and influence of civil society distinguishes each country’s approach to international human rights. Her thesis considers each governments’ response by looking at the nations’ human rights culture, rights-supporting institutions, and the political opportunities for civil society to influence state policies and conduct.

In Australia, Ms. Banham suggested that the government’s indifference to the torture of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib reflected a significant lack of social and legal human rights activism at home. Absent a bill of rights and a strong human rights culture, Australian litigation and public campaigns regarding torture, tended to center on moral arguments, due process, fair trial and the rule of law. This was compounded by a perception by the government of the day that the role of civil society lacked legitimacy.

Conversely in the United Kingdom, Ms. Banham argued that there was intensive political pressure for the government to address the allegations of its complicity in the torture of UK residents and citizens.  Owing to the history of Northern Ireland, terrorism, torture and legislative overreach, and to the UK’s strong human rights culture – supported by a national bill of rights and the European Convention of Human Rights –civil society in the UK was able to exploit political division and create opportunities to influence the government’s response.

Finally in her analysis of Canada’s response to the torture of its citizen, Ms. Banham considered the cases of Maher Arar and Omar Khadr. The ‘popularity’ of Arar and Khadr seemed to play a significant role: Arar’s “attractive” and articulate wife appeared to inspire social activism and robust public scrutiny of the Canadian government’s response; Khadr’s notoriously unpopular family appeared to alienate civil society whose efforts were far less vocal in holding the government to account. Although Canada’s strong human rights culture, legal frameworks and political institutions supported civil society action on the torture of citizens and residents, Ms. Banham said the public’s willingness to build momentum around one case and not the other created a duality in the government’s behaviour and approach to international human rights. 


With thanks to AHRCentre intern, Erin Jardine, for summarising the seminar and providing the text above.