Australia's approving silence on US torture


Abu Ghraib'Action in the political field should be considered one of the most effective ways of bringing about a more just social order' — Pedro Arrupe SJ.

Prime Minister John Howard and his political rival, Labor leader Kevin Rudd, are offering right leadership and new leadership respectively. But evidently neither corresponds to their electoral pitch. There's been little morally 'right' under Howard's watch and Rudd's 'me-tooism' purports nothing new or decent.

Rudd's recent back flip on Labor policy regarding foreign affairs spokesman Robert McClelland's moral comment on the death penalty is hypocrisy given his self-promoting Christian image — Christ himself was arrested, imprisoned, tortured and the sublime victim of the death penalty. As Pax Christi director, David Robinson, states, 'Christ is being crucified today through the practice of torture.'

Leadership is the present pre-election focus and Australians are challenged to deem what essential human qualities and skills are required to govern well so that as a nation we can walk proud. Rather than pampered politicians, for exemplars I turn to Jesuit Fr Steve Kelly, and Franciscan Fr Louis Vitale, who were sentenced this 17 October to five months imprisonment for trespass at the Army's main interrogation training facility, Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

Fathers Kelly and Vitale's non-violent protest against the practice of torture by US military and intelligence and their subsequent imprisonment went virtually unnoticed by the press. On 19 November 2006, they attempted to give a letter protesting against the practice of torture to the Fort Huachuca commander, Major General Barbara Fast. Fast was formerly the head of intelligence for the US command in Baghdad and in charge of interrogators at Abu Graib where prisoners were physically, psychologically and sexually tortured.

The letter reads in part: 'We are here today as concerned US people, veterans and clergy, to speak with enlisted personnel about the illegality and immorality of torture according to international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions...

'We are here today at Fort Huachuca in solidarity with tens of thousands of people at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning, Georgia (formerly known as the School of the Americas) to say that the training of torturers must immediately stop. Nothing justifies the inhumane treatment of our fellow brothers and sisters. Torture by US military personnel has reached alarming proportions and has horrified people around the world.'

Fr Kelly was also impelled to act by a recent survey that said the majority of US Catholics think torture is acceptable. 'As a priest, I say torture is counter to the Gospel of Jesus ... We need to renounce torture, war and nuclear weapons. We have to learn to love as Christ loved, and abolish torture and war once and for all.'

Just as Jesus prophesied his own arrest, Fathers Kelly and Vitale knew arrest and imprisonment were likely. They are not strangers to detention. Fr Kelly has accumulated six years incarceration, half in solitary confinement for his anti-war protests. Fr Vitale is co-founder of the Nevada Desert Experience, a faith-based organisation that opposes nuclear weapons testing and is the Pace e Bene Action Advocate. In 2006 he served six months in jail following his arrest at the November 2005 Fort Benning vigil.

Participants in such non-violent actions are thoroughly prepared, spiritually and emotionally, for effective impact and probable detention in a tough American prison.

Australians are implicated in Fathers Kelly and Vitale's stand against torture. John Howard's friendship with George W. Bush has compromised and tainted Australia's once reputable record on human rights advocacy.

In July 2002 Australia voted against the adoption of the text of a protocol designed to strengthen the 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture in the UN's Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Australian officials knew of Mamdouh Habib's extraordinary rendition to Egypt. Regarding the Howard government's five-year negligence of David Hicks, Catholic Bishop Kevin Manning said: 'When Australia fails to act to guarantee the human rights of one of its citizens, then we are all diminished.'

On 30 October 2007, The Age ran an article which says it all: 'Our silence on US torture looks like approval.'

Imagine an Australia governed by persons with the spiritual integrity of Steve Kelly, Louis Vitale or others like them. Yet none of these ex-cons would view themselves as leaders. They take their lead only from the principles of Christ.

This personal responsibility to act on the holy principles of love and justice makes for a new and right consideration of leadership. In the words of author Laurens van der Post: 'The age of leaders has come and gone. Every [person] must be [their] own leader now. You must remove your projection, and contain the spirit of our time in your own life and your own nature, because to go the old way and follow your leader is a form of psychological imprisonment.

'We want to be emancipated from that age, and the answer is to profoundly reappraise our systems of government and everything else.'

Dr Vacy Vlazna Dr Vacy Vlazna is the coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters. She was convenor of Australia East Timor Association and East Timor Justice Lobby and served in East Timor with UNAMET and UNTAET.



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Existing comments

Well done Dr Vlazna! Capital and Corporal punishment are outdated both morally and socially.

Matt Coffey | 15 November 2007  

It's heartening to read another excellent discussion, which reminds each of us that we need to remain vigilant in building our integrity through fundamental human values of respect for ourselves and for others in all ways...'a chain is only as strong as its weakest link'.

Christine Thompson | 16 November 2007  

It's heartening to read another excellent discussion, which reminds each of us that we need to remain vigilant in building our integrity through fundamental human values of respect for ourselves and for others in all ways...'a chain is only as strong as its weakest link'.

Christine Thompson | 16 November 2007  

Australians who can remain sanguine about torture may also be able turn a blind eye to an another aspect of America’s reign of terror: A CBS network news report this week, replayed on the web, yesterday revealed the astounding information that 6256 members of the US armed services killed themselves in one single year during or after service in Iraq. The network investigation focused on only the single year of 2005. They interviewed relatives of reported suicides and each interview led to other unreported deaths and were followed up to arrive at a precise figure for that year. The investigators could only estimate total of at least 15,000 military suicides between 2004 and 2007. Add this to the 150 percent annual increase in infant mortality in Iraq since the 1990 sanctions, also revealed in the past few days, and we have almost unbearable horrors with which to contend.

Rod Lever | 19 November 2007  


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