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Why the torture taboo matters

Barnes, Jamal (2013) Why the torture taboo matters. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Torture is one of the most prohibited practices in international society and has become a symbol of cruel and unnecessary suffering. Despite this absolute prohibition, torture is widely practiced by states around the world. This disparity between the prohibition of torture and the practice of states raises fundamental questions about the role and power of moral norms in world politics. Does the torture taboo matter? Or are political realists correct in arguing that power politics rules?

This thesis makes the paradoxical argument that despite its widespread violation, not only does the torture taboo matter, but that its strength can be found by studying its violation. The torture taboo constitutes state identities and interests and shapes state actions. Even during times of security crisis, the torture taboo is not forgotten. States hide, deny, and re-define their torture, outsource it to other states, or use techniques that do not leave marks on the body. The fact states go to such great lengths to hide their use of torture demonstrates not the weakness of the taboo, but rather its strength.

In order to demonstrate the power of the torture taboo, and explain why states deny their use of torture, I trace a genealogy of the taboo from the eighteenth century to the twenty first century. I show how international society came to understand torture the way it does today. I show also that the taboo has not developed in a linear fashion, but has become more robust over time due to a series of fortuitous events, and, most surprisingly, in response to widespread inhumanity. By showing that the history of the torture taboo is also a story about what it means to be human, I seek to show that the taboo contains normative values immanent in the present that are integral to experiencing the good life.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Management and Governance
Supervisor(s): Ganguly, Rajat and Makinda, Samuel
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