Science of Heaven and Hell

**As the world pieces together the details from the Singapore Summit, Trump’s praise of Kim Jong-un solidifies his disregard for human rights violations and violators. In this blog, reposted from last summer, Verbeek identifies subordination as an obstacle to peace. He also says dialogue, if successful, may be a viable option. Only time will tell…

Nagasaki Journey. Picture taken by Yosuke Yamahata on August 10, 1945, the day after the bombing of Nagasaki.
Nagasaki Journey. Picture taken by Yosuke Yamahata on August 10, 1945, the day after the bombing of Nagasaki. Source: Creative Commons

On August 8, 2017, following a news report that North Korea had succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to fit its class of intercontinental ballistic missiles, President Trump, on a working vacation at his Trump golf resort in Bridgewater, New Jersey, proclaimed “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States . . . they will be met by fire and fury like the world has never seen”. I have been trying to imagine what this unprecedented fire and fury would look, smell, and feel like. In his peace declaration commemorating the 72nd A-bomb anniversary the mayor of Hiroshima, Kazumi Matsui, provides some hints as he invites us to imagine what happened in Hiroshima that fatal day of August 6, 1945 at 8:15 am:

Let’s imagine for a moment what happened under that roiling mushroom cloud. Pika — the penetrating flash, extreme radiation and heat. Don — the earth-shattering roar and blast. As the blackness lifts, the scenes emerging into view reveal countless scattered corpses charred beyond recognition even as man or woman. Stepping between the corpses, badly burned, nearly naked figures with blackened faces, singed hair, and tattered, dangling skin wander through spreading flames, looking for water. The rivers in front of you are filled with bodies; the riverbanks so crowded with burnt, half-naked victims you have no place to step. This is truly hell”.

The mayor of Nagasaki, Tomihisa Taue, in his 72nd A-bomb anniversary peace declaration, mirrors this horrific image,

On that day, the furious blast and heat rays reduced the city of Nagasaki to a charred expanse of land. People whose skin hung down in strips staggered around the ruined city looking for their families. A dumbfounded mother stood beside her child who had been burnt black. Every corner of the city was like a landscape from hell. Unable to obtain adequate medical treatment many of these people fell dead, one by one”.

Source: Creative Commons

Science has made great advances in the development of nuclear arms, and the power of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki pales in comparison to the power of today’s nuclear arsenals. Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s bombings created hell on Earth, and it seems almost impossible to imagine what the fire and fury that Mr. Trump talks about would amount to. I wonder whether Mr. Trump has an idea of the degree of hell that he can unleash if he sees it fit to do so. Like I am doing here, he may have looked back at the pictures of the charred remains of the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and of the wounds on the bodies of those who were not instantly incinerated. In fact, I do not think that it is a coincidence that Mr. Trump’s threat to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) resembles President Truman’s threat to Japan made in early August, 72 years ago. Calling for Japan’s surrender, Mr. Truman warned Japan to “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth“.

Mr. Trump’s threats to the DPRK follow a series of threats directed at the USA and its Southeast Asian allies by the DPRK’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un and his military leaders. It is likely that a threat delivered on August 7, 2017, by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho to a gathering of foreign ministers from the US, China, South Korea, Japan, and other Southeast Asian countries, was instrumental in Mr. Trump’s “fire and fury” threat of August 8, 2017. As Mr. Ri Yong Ho told this gathering, “Should the US pounce upon the DPRK with military force at last, the DPRK is ready to teach the US a severe lesson with its strategic nuclear force”.

Behavioral science tells us that there are a limited number of possible responses to a threat. One is a counter threat, another is attack, and yet another subordination. Each of these responses represents an obstacle to peace. A fourth approach is an offer of dialogue, which, if taken upon, can be a catalyst of peace. If Mr. Trump launches a preemptive strike in response to the threats of Mr. Kim Jong Un, it is likely that China will come to the aid of the DPRK, irrespective of whether the preemptive strike is nuclear or conventional. An English language editorial in China’s unofficial state newspaper, Global Times, targeted at an international audience, suggests as much: “If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.” If Mr. Kim Jong Un launches an attack on the USA in response to Mr. Trump’s threats China will likely remain neutral at first: “China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral”.

Judging by what has transpired thus far, neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Kim Jong Un can be expected to respond submissively to the threats of the other, and so additional counter-threats, attacks, or offers of dialogue are options remaining to them. I expect that threats and counter-threats will prevail for a while and then taper off unless and until the DPRK launches more missiles or conducts another nuclear test. For Mr. Trump issuing threats scores points with his supporters and bumps up his approval ratings. For Mr. Kim Jong Un issuing threats signals to his military command that he is in charge and may help keep challenges to his regime from within the military at bay. The danger to the world is the possibility that someone misreads a radar image or misinterprets a military training exercise as ‘the real thing’ and sets in motion the chain of events that leads to either Mr. Trump or Mr. Kim Jong Un, or both, pushing buttons to launch nuclear warheads. The reality is that both in the democratic USA and in the DPKR dictatorship the decision to rain fire and fury on the citizens of another country rests with the one man at the top.

As a scientist, I share the view of other concerned scientists that there are no military options to the North Korea issue and that dialogue is the only viable option. Both as a scientist and as a private citizen, I believe that a nuclear strike of any kind, irrespective of who is carrying it out, is morally unacceptable and a crime against not just human life but against all of life.

I am familiar with the arguments for nuclear deterrence and for so-called justified nuclear strikes. As a young man I had heated debates with my step-mother about whether or not the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were justified. My step-mother spent part of her early youth in a Japanese internment camp in Indonesia. Her Dutch family was rounded up by the Japanese army when it invaded Indonesia in 1942 and she and her mother were interned in one of these infamous camps where an estimated 3,000 Dutch women and children perished. She stated that the nuclear bombings saved her life because they led to her liberation from the camp. The policy of the Japanese military regarding foreign women and children in internment camps and male prisoners of war toward the end of WWII was “kill all leave no traces” (1). General McArthur wanted to liberate Java but was ordered not do to so by the joint chiefs and President Roosevelt. It was indeed Japan’s 1945 surrender to the Allied Forces brought on by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s bombings that led to the liberation of the survivors of the internment camps and the surviving prisoners of war. While I feel great joy that the lives of my step-mother and other surviving victims of Japan’s wartime aggression were saved, I continue to believe that nothing justifies unleashing hell on earth through a nuclear attack. The fact that my step-mother and I had this debate illustrates the insanity of war.

If dialogue is the only option for the North Korean crisis, what is the outlook for a successful dialogue between the USA and the DPRK? It is actually quite good. While Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father, engaged in military first politics, Kim Jong Un has launched a new doctrine calling for simultaneous progress on nuclear deterrence and economic development. Work in political science suggests that the DPRK will start focusing on its prosperity instead of its self-preservation once it no longer has to worry about its own destruction (13). Political scientist John Delury, a member of the nonpartisan and nongovernmental National Committee on North Korea, sees the prospects for peace this way:

Trump can now help him pivot to the economy, as Kim appears to have wanted to do all along. However unlikely a pair the two might seem, Kim and Trump are well positioned to strike the kind of deal that could lower the grave risks both their countries (and the region) now face. Such a move would also allow Trump to reaffirm U.S. leadership in a region critical to U.S. interests, and to finally start resolving a problem that has bedeviled every U.S. President since Harry Truman.”

I believe that the prospects for peace as outlined by John Delury are real, but it will take statesmanship and savvy, not brinkmanship and bluster to realize them.

Nobel Prize Laureate Niko Tinbergen writes that scientific research is one of the finest occupations of our mind, and ads that, with art and religion, science is one of the uniquely human ways of meeting nature, in fact the most active way. By developing ways to harness some of the fundamental powers of nature, science has brought us hell on earth in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Science also brings us new insights into the natural bases of peace. Rather than the traditional perception of nature as an arena of unmitigated violent competition, new fields like peace ethology show us that life sustains itself primarily through networking, rather than through combat (2). Applying what science teaches us about our evolved abilities for peace and how to harness them will not bring us heaven on earth, but it will surely move us away from human-made gates of hell.

 

Dr. Peter Verbeek is an Associate Professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He teaches in the Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights program and does research on how humans and other animals make and sustain peace.

Footnotes: 1) Stichting Japanse Ereschulden – English; 2) Verbeek, P. & Peters, B.A. (Forthcoming). Peace ethology: Behavioral processes and systems of peace. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Publishers.

 

 

Continuity and Change on the Korean Peninsula

**As Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump prepare for the North Korean Summit in Singapore on Tuesday, this repost from last Spring sheds light on the complexity and seriousness of this summit. 

by GRIFFIN LEONARD

a picture of two North Korean soldiers looking through binoculars towards the South
North Korean Guard looking South. Source: Expert Infantry, Creative Commons.

A lot has been said recently about the seemingly worsening relationship between the US and Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK). Unsurprisingly, much of the commentary revolves around the Trump Administration at a time where the new President seems confronted by numerous international “situations.” The dropping of a MOAB in Afghanistan and missile strikes against Syria, when taken together with heightened tensions between the US and the DPRK, paint a broader picture of the direction the Trump Presidency is taking. While this may be helpful to Americans as they try to understand their President’s decisions, putting Trump as the centerpiece of analysis has the dangerous potential to obscure other important factors, namely the continuity and change that has marked the US-DPRK relationship. Only by including both in our analysis can we begin to understand the events unfolding on the Korean Peninsula.

Change

Like any relationship, that of the US and DPRK does not exist in a vacuum. Their bilateral relations are well known. Diplomatic efforts have failed to yield real progress towards a resolution of the tensions on the Korean Peninsula, much less move towards a sustainable arrangement between the parties involved there. Border incidents that have claimed the lives of South Koreans, North Koreans and Americans have been ongoing for as long as the current border has existed. These incidents have, of course, been the cause of heightened tensions at different times between the US and DPRK.

The relationship is also subject to changes in the international environment. Authoritarian practices in South Korea following the end of the Korean War forced the US to consider what exactly the South Korean people had inherited from the devastating conflict. The terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 raised concerns of nuclear terrorism and therefore nuclear proliferation more generally. The growing power of China in military and economic terms continues to raise the significance of the steps they are or are not willing to take in trying to tackle the issues at hand on the Korean Peninsula. These and other global trends influence the measure of significance which the US attaches to the Korean Peninsula at any given time; and the way by which they choose to engage with the DPRK.

There is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump could be, or cause, another significant change in the US–DPRK relationship. Of central importance is Trump’s demonstrated impulsive and inconsistent behaviour, especially when it comes to how he communicates with others. He differs from other Presidents because not only are the policies towards adversaries and allies in question, but as an international community, we find ourselves wondering how he will behave on a more basic level. Will he put aside basic and long-standing diplomatic decorum, aggravating other world leaders with hostile rhetoric akin to what he employed during his campaign for the Presidency?

The same countries and their leaders that Trump dealt out insults to as 2016 ticked by are the same countries and leaders that he must deal with in 2017.

Of more concern is whether Trump will be able to communicate a clear message to adversaries at all. It remains to be seen whether Trump can frame the many public announcements he has to make in a way that appeals to his domestic support base (something all politicians do) but also conveys the US’ position on important matters to other world leaders, adversary and ally. Doing this requires consistency and coherency across the many mediums through which the President now communicates: social media, informal television interviews and formal White House events and statements. The outlook is not good so far.

a picture of the DMZ between north and south Korea
Joint Security Area, North Korea-South Korea border. Source: SarahTz, Creative Commons.

It has been widely reported that the Trump Administration’s statements regarding the DPRK have been hostile and inflammatory. This is undoubtedly true. An important aspect to note is that through deliberate decision-making or gaffe, much of the communication by the Trump Administration has created confusion among the parties invested in the Korean Peninsula.

I will explain this point using two examples. First, the vague statement released by Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, following a recent missile test by the DPRK and Trump’s refusal to answer questions on the matter on American television. Trump has long promoted the idea that not to reveal his next move is, in and of itself, a smart move. The issue is that when states do not want to fight over an issue, they seek information about how far they can push their luck, making as large a gain as possible (whether this be in terms of prestige or something more material) while avoiding direct conflict. In other words, they attempt to discern when to yield. To do this, a state must have some idea of what their adversary is willing and/or capable of doing to resolve a dispute in their own favour.

For all the absurdities of the North Korean regime, it is highly unlikely that they want to ever see a direct confrontation with the US. Vagueness on the part of the Trump Administration keeps the DPRK in the dark as to where the line is and increases the chance that they will trip right over it. The DPRK wants to make gains in the form of developing its missile capability. Trump needs to find a way of communicating to their leadership when, where and how the US is willing to act; therefore, talks with DPRK are far from being complete.

The second example is the mistake made by Trump and other officials when an “armada” heading towards Australia was said to be heading in the direction of North Korea. Inaccurate information compounds all the issues related to ambiguity mentioned above. What is more, this error unsettled South Korea with politicians and media outlets questioning Trump’s will and ability to deal with the DPRK. This response should, perhaps, not be unexpected. Given their common border, the DPRK could inflict massive damage on South Korea through conventional weapons alone. Similarly, Japan feels threatens due to their proximity and the 50,000 US troops stationed there. Experts vary in their predictions of by which date the DPRK could develop a missile capable of reaching the US.

Taking these two examples together, while it is clear the rhetoric emanating from the White House is inflammatory, it is less clear whether it is effectively conveying information to the parties involved regarding America’s stance and intentions.

It is important to say that this is not simply a matter of finding Trump to be a distasteful person. His public performance in dealing with this issue is of real significance. While academics debate whether rhetoric utilised by politicians has any influence over the course of events in foreign affairs, policy makers themselves seem to place great importance on the public pronouncements made by state officials. In reading the autobiographies of former US Presidents, one quickly realises that they believe their words are important in directing the course of events; therefore, we should not be surprised that politicians place a lot of value in their own words! The South Korean response to Trump’s mistake in stating that the US was sending an armada towards the Korean Peninsula is an indicator of the importance that other world leaders place in the statements of their colleagues. Trump’s statements can heighten tensions with adversaries and offend allies whom he claims he would persuade to take more of the financial burden of dealing with said adversaries.

Regarding the DPRK, few governments, if any, are so committed to the “performance” of governance. Large portions of the DPRK’s state structure are committed to promoting the party line to both the domestic population of North Korea and the international community. Strict media and Internet control by the state demonstrates the significance attached to the control of public information.

DPRK officials do this precisely because they know that other state leaders and intelligence agencies monitor speeches by regime officials, television broadcasts, and internet traffic, to read between the lines and get a better picture of what happens in their secretive society. Similarly, they would remain committed to trying to glean information from the televised interviews, public speeches and, yes, even tweets of Donald Trump’s Administration. To think otherwise is naïve.

a picture of the 3rd Tunnel which joins North and South Korea
The 3rd Tunnel – joining North and South Korea. Source: Dushan Hanuska, Creative Commons

Continuity

It is easy to allow our focus to drift too quickly to new developments in this unfolding situation. Some elements of the continued tension between the US and DPRK, while not as exciting or topical as Trump’s Presidency, are equally as important in explaining the current state of affairs. One such element is the presence of nuclear weapons. Three parties involved in the dispute, the DPRK, US and China, are nuclear capable to one degree or another.

In an indictment of nuclear deterrence theory, the very manoeuvres–diplomatic, military and otherwise–that both the US and DPRK make due to the significance they attribute to a dispute in which nuclear weapons are involved, may be the very thing that, deliberately or otherwise, spark the use of military force on the Peninsula. Even if it were true that, as proponents of nuclear deterrence advocate, weapons of mass destruction make the cost of entering and engaging in conflict so high that no reasonable state leader would consider doing so, the constant need to balance armaments leads to an arms race that only serves to heighten the tensions one wishes to avoid, increasing the risk of unplanned escalation. It should not be lost on us that this current round of tensions was triggered, in large part, by exactly this: the DPRK undertaking missile tests. Moreover, as explained below, not only could state leaders consider using nuclear weapons despite knowing the consequences, they have!

It is simply a convenient out to equate the problems generated by nuclear weapons with the current occupant of the White House. Throughout his presidential campaign, the question of whether (Trump) was the “type of person” that we would want having control of the US nuclear arsenal was often raised. While this question is reasonable at face value, it suggests that the threat of nuclear weapons does not have so much to do with the weapons themselves as the person empowered to use them or the state that possesses them.

As to the last point, having to ask this question of US electoral candidates belies the idea that certain types of states can be trusted to possess nuclear weapons. One could argue that democratically elected leaders must consider domestic support for a decision to use nuclear weapons, whereas dictators do not. However, of all the situations in which we can imagine decision-makers considering the use of nuclear weapons, cases in which contemplation could be given to domestic support for the idea make up only a small portion. It is likely that such a situation would be characterised by small time-horizons and partial information. If nothing else, it is perfectly consistent with democratic systems that a person we would not want in charge of nuclear weapons can be elected.

Here we are back to the notion of whom. If there are types of people we cannot trust to be in charge of nuclear weapons then perhaps there are types of people that we can trust too?

In the well-known documentary, The Fog of War, in which Robert McNamara imparts lessons from his life, he describes the parties involved (and the world) as having “lucked out” in avoiding nuclear confrontation during the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Regardless of what one thinks of John F. Kennedy, perhaps it is not too strong to say that he was a more experienced political operator than Donald Trump. Yet, even JFK and the leaders of the Soviet Union and Cuba–all rational people, per McNamara, came exceptionally close to making decisions that could end their societies, as they knew them. McNamara concludes the combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations. This is not due to the character of one particular person but the inescapably imperfect process of human decision-making.

The failure to understand both the current events and long-term processes at work in this situation has consequences beyond a lacking analysis. Trump and the members of his administration need to be included in any understanding of US-DPRK relations. On one hand, the Trump Administration undoubtedly plays a role in determining the course of events regarding the Korean Peninsula, so attempts to downplay the administration’s significance is to remove their accountability for the dispute’s trajectory. On the other hand, to ignore ongoing issues, such as the presence of nuclear weapons in this dispute, suggests a fatalistic perspective where the resolution of all international affairs rests on the shoulders of one person – the US President. There are a multitude of drivers of this conflict and thus a multitude of levers that can be pulled in trying to steer the course of events towards a peaceful resolution. Groups of concerned people tackling the issue of continued nuclear stockpiling are only one example. While we rightly continue to understand our political leaders’ decisions, holding them to account for the consequences thereof, it is important to remember that they are not the sole causes or agents of social change.

 

Griffin Leonard is a third year PhD candidate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago. His research analyses the role of US Presidential rhetoric in determining militarised interstate dispute outcomes involving the US since 1950. His expertise is in American foreign policy and diplomatic history.

 

How Can We Define Torture? The Curious Case of Otto Warmbier

Human beings often use words without understanding their full semantics or definition. Torture is one of those words. The reality of torture, in its actual definition and context, will remain an unknown experience for majority of humanity. Torture, for some, is part of their new normal. The purpose of this blog is to look briefly at the human rights violation of torture through the lens of cultural relativism and moral universalism.

a photo of a prison
Prison. Source: daily sunny, Creative Commons

A similar story

In 1994, 19-year-old American Michael Fay lived in Singapore. He made international headlines when a conviction of vandalism and sentencing to six lashes by caning became his punishment. Caning is a part of the corporal punishment system in Singapore. Most recently, a Saudi diplomat received caning lashes for molestation. At the time of Fay’s arrest, President Clinton described the punishment as too harsh, and the Singaporean government reduced the lashes to four. Fay received his lashes and returned home. I mention Fay as an entry point for Otto Warmbier.

I followed Warmbier’s case when it began in January 2016. He was a student from the University of Virginia, sentenced by the North Korean government to 15 years of hard labor over offensive behavior while on a backpacking tour in the country. The accusation brought against him of trying to steal a sign from the hotel where he was staying, resulted in an immediate conviction, considering the action as a “hostile act” and attempt to hurt the working class of Koreans by undermining solidarity. Theft in the People’s Republic of Korea (PRK), regardless of object or size, often results in a public execution or beatings in prison camps and schoolyards as a means for deterring future behaviors. He is an enemy of the state.

Amnesty International notes North Korea’s propensity for arbitrary arrests and detentions. The US State department, at the time of his arrest, called for his immediate release, stating the punishment is “unduly harsh” and if he had been in any other country, the incident would not have resulted in this treatment or conviction. Warmbier, after 18 months as a prisoner in North Korea, died on June 19 in Ohio, following a “humanitarian gesture” of release by the North Koreans.

My initial interest in Otto was his reasoning/logic for travelling to the totalitarian “hermit kingdom” without knowledge of the culture. Yes, due to the fact, he is an American citizen, an appeal for his release and return was a correct gesture by the State Department at the time. However, if he was released in January 2016, what would he or anyone else have learned from that exchange? As Americans, we have cultivated and bought into an American exceptionalism ideology that often highlights our ignorance of international cultural norms and behaviors, thereby positioning us with the short end of the stick. Our American exceptionalism repetitively accuses other countries of torturous treatment of prisoners and other Americans, yet we somehow fail to see the plank in our own eye.

Cultural relativism

The men in both cases were accused, convicted, sentenced, and received punishment in accordance of the laws in the nations where they were guests. The US government described both punishments as torturous or unfair treatment. Many comments and explanations made and given spoke of the men’s character; however, no one mentioned about their knowledge of the culture of the country’s they visited (lived in, in Fay’s case) or the choice each man made that resulted in a behavior that was punishable by law. Perhaps these men are innocent of the crimes; only they know.

Sally Engle Merry suggests the misunderstanding over culture and human rights narrows to whether the application of rights is culturally relative or universal. She asserts that “Rights are understood as a uniquely Western idea… Culture, on the other hand, is understood as homogenous, integrated system of belief and values attached to a relatively small and isolated group of people. It was this conception of culture which spawned relativism as a moral perspective. Cultural relativism is the social discipline that comes of respect for differences – of mutual respect.” She concedes our understanding of culture informs our knowledge of rights. The notion of human rights found their basis in the identification and protection of civil and political rights, as determined by cultures willing to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Since 1948, human rights have expanded, and continue to expand, to include the global collective of humanity, framed and spoken in “the preeminent global language of social justice. The changes correlate with some fluid elements of national cultures like McDonaldization, the use of smartphones and social media; changing and adapting to global influences like globalization. In other words, globalization and the application of human rights are determined by and dependent upon the pliable features of a national culture. PRK remains a significant outlier because of national sovereignty.

In “Human Rights along the Grapevine”, Mark Goodale agrees with Merry using a clarifying caveat. He points out that the writers of the UDHR did so with an “anti-internationalism” delegation in mind. To Roosevelt, the understanding and implementation of the UDHR for citizens in countries closed to creating laws that protected human rights, “a curious grapevine” would bring to pass the information about the new normative system. As individuals learned about their human rights, they could initiate a change in culture, from the bottom-up, which cultivates a new national culture that honors the universality of human rights, through the respect and honoring of human rights on a national level first. He suggests the UDHR provides a standard by which global humanity can identity and measure the protection or violation of human rights under specific governments, particularly regarding repression and subjugation. It is important to know that the UDHR does not and cannot override national sovereignty. National sovereignty reigns supreme when it comes to what takes place within the borders of a country. Do human rights require acceptance on an individual country basis—culturally relative–or should they find recognition and protection through global application? Returning to the Warmbier case, let us look at the accusation of the torture by the US.

a picture of the inside of Port Arthur Prison
Prison at Port Arthur. Source: Dushan Hanuska, Creative Commons.

Torture: Pot meet kettle

Torture, for Callaway and Harrell-Stephenson, is the most significant human rights violation because it not only violates the individual but also instills a system of fear within a society, removing a sense of security. Several international law, covenants, conventions and declarations conclude that torture is a direct violation of a person’s rights and dignity. Article Five of the UDHR states, “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Article Two of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) reads, “Each state party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.” The United States is a state party to the CAT, yet even in the declaration of agreement, there is a stipulation that invokes national sovereignty:

That the United States considers itself bound by the obligation under article 16 to prevent `cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’, only insofar as the term `cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ means the cruel, unusual and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States

It is tempting to think totalitarian and authoritarian regimes are uniquely guilty of torturous actions. Bobby Sands of Ireland as well as former prisoners of Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo), and the photographic evidence from Abu Ghraib are reminders that democratic governments, including the US, can also perpetrate human rights violations. Let us briefly discuss Gitmo and Abu Ghraib as examples of how America treats enemies of the state and prisoners of war based upon the conditions the government stated within the CAT.

“It is very, very scary when you are tortured by someone who doesn’t believe in torture…” Ahmed Errachidi

Callaway and Harrell-Stephenson observe that for the Nazis, the removal of Jews to concentration camps brought about an ‘out of sight, out of minds’ perspective to the population. Apuzzo, Fink, and Risen assert the denial of torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques” positions the US as an entity that contradicts its values by employing tactics that stand in direct opposition to those values. In their article, they present the case that the US frequently conducts arbitrary arrests based upon nonexistent or flimsy evidence. Arrests regularly fails to provide due process to those in custody, flagrantly participates in behaviors where the lines remain blurred as “amounted to torture or succeeded in extracting intelligence”, and discard prisoners without explanation or charges to return to their home countries and families as shells of who they once were.

Gitmo is synonymous with the torture of prisoners by the US. Testimonies of former prisoners, interrogators, physicians, and medical and government documentation speak to the humiliating and abusive tactics utilized by American soldiers and CIA personnel to obtain “information” which could be used to capture and prosecute additional enemies of the state. However, as mentioned in the 60 Minutes interview, torture may not result in the victim providing useful information. The prisoner simply says what is necessary to end the suffering.

Former President George W. Bush determined waterboarding, a technique that stimulates the feeling of drowning and induces stress, does not constituting torture. President Obama in 2009 disagreed, banned its use by the US, and sought to close Gitmo during his presidency. During the 2016 election, Donald Trump promised to reinstate waterboarding and torturous acts, stating, “I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” The collection of stories in the NY Times piece is consistent with the photographs from Abu Ghraib. The photos taken by American soldiers reveal the dishonoring, degrading, and torturous action inflicted upon prisoners of war in American custody. Given our treatment of prisoners, whether actual enemies of the state or someone arrested due to mistaken identity, America has little credibility when attempting to call out PRK on torture.

The line between cultural relativism and universality is thin. The United States, as active perpetrators of torture and degrading punishment including waterboarding, stands cheek-to-cheek with the country it seeks to name and shame into submission. The Curious Case of Otto Warmbier challenges the authority of national sovereignty and cultural relativism in the light of human rights and their universal application. The call to protect human rights is an all or nothing call; there is no in-between. To stand on the values of truth, justice, and law for one person, one area or country, you must stand for it for all persons, areas or countries.