Reporters Without Borders' Secretary General Justifies Torture

Reporters Without Borders are seen as defenders of freedom of expression and liberal western values. So it doesn't come as a surprise that this NGO's secretary general, Robert Ménard, declares Torture to be legitimate in some cases. Why is RWB's endorsment of Torture is not a surprise ? Because there is no debate on Torture anymore in western socieites. We have adopted and banalised Torture. Torture is becoming mainstream. What did we do when we learned about Abu Ghraib ? What did we do when we learned of Guantanmo ? What did we do when we learned of Bush's secret prisons and extraordinary renditions ? Nothing. So it does not come as a surprise that those who hold western liberal values as their lightning rod express actually their acceptation of Torture. Torture is definitely going mainstream. The absence of a public debate about it is a schocking proof of its acceptation. Read the interview, the radio host did not actually react to Ménard. And the french press, in general, except Rue89, did not report the fact. There is nothing to say actually about Torture.

In a transcript of a radio interview given by Robert Ménard and revealed by the French online information website Rue89, Robert Ménard declares:

"On the dark side of the state, there is worse (then Torture I suppose, my emphasis). The movie adapted from the book of Marianne Pearl relating the kidnapping of her husband will be released soon (American movies are sometimes released with a three to six month delay in Europe, my emphasis).

That's not a romanced story. I spoke with Marianne Pearl about this when I was in the US for the movie première few weeks ago. We both recalled that US authorities knew who was holding Pearl hostage. What should they do ? What should they let do ? And what should they close their eyes on ? The Pakistani police took the families of the suspects as hostages, you hear me, and tortured those families in order to extract information on Pearl's kidnappers.

They had the information. But they were late to save Daniel. You know how he was killed and in which conditions, they cut his throat..

Where should we stop ? Should we accept this logic... In some cases we could. "They take hostages, we take hostages; They msitreat hostages, we mistreat them; they torture, we torture.."

What justifies this… Should we go to these limits in order to liberate a hostage ? That's a true question.

But that's real life, that's it, as François just said: we are not here in the world of ideas, there aren't principles anymore. I don't know what to think. Because it happened to Marianne Pearl, I am not saying, I wouldn't say that they were wrong in doing so because she thought that it should be done and that it is O.K., that they ought to save her husband; she was pregnant… For the baby who was going to come to life everything was permitted.

And they ought to save him, and if they were going to harm some people, we ought to do it; to harm them physically you understand, by threatening them and torturing, even if we had to kill some of them.

I don't know, I am lost, because at a certain point I don't know where we should stop, where should we set the cursor. What is acceptable and what is not ? And, at the same time, for the families of the kidnapped, because they are often the first we deal with and adress in the first place, at Reporters Without Borders; from a legitimate point of view, I, if it were my daughter who was taken hostage, there will be no limit, I tell you, I tell you (bis), there will be no limit (inaudible)...

Xavier de la Porte (radio host):
Then, it is better not to know what is going on.

Robert Ménard:
Yes, we shouldn't say it, what do you want ? Do you want to be told such stories ? Can you imagine, people will think … and they will be right to think so; we are trying to mobilise people all the time, but what if people come to think that mobilising for a cause has its downside and this nightmarish aspect which I just described… We don't know anymore where we stand-the Good, the Bad- Inside this..."

It does not come to Ménard that they, at RWB, have a greater responsibility than everybody else in going mainstream on torture because they are the ones who inform us about what is going on. Did you notice that at the end Ménard admits two shocking facts; not only we can endorse Torture in some cases but they, as reporters, should probably not inform the public about it. The case is closed.

Read here my two articles on Torture:

Are We Banalising Torture ?

Torture and Terror: Bush's and Bin Laden's Victories, Everybody Else's Defeat

Read Juan Cole: Gonzalez gone for the wrong reasons


Pierre Tristam said...

In the context of what Menard was talking about--Daniel Pearl's wife looking to save him--I have to ask myself: given a similar situation, with someone in my family in danger, would I stop at anything to free him or her? Of course not. At absolutely nothing. Someone is endangering my wife, my son, my daughter: I strike, if I can, without a thought to ethical concerns. My only concern is to save them (I say all this of course hoping first that the situation would never arise, and second that, should it arise, I would have the courage of my words). But I make a difference between what an individual can and will do in the face of such endangerments, and what a government may and may not do in the name of individuals. Menard's comments are more nuanced than they're made to appear.

Sophia said...


My son asked me this question yesterday. What would I do if he is the one who is kidnapped ?
It is evident that nobody can assume, in advance, what her or his reaction will be. All we can speak of in advance is in term of principles and not actual reactions.
We can never leave the world of ideas when it comes to Torture. Are we allowed to do ourselves justice ? That was my answer to my son. Because by endorsing individual justice, even in the most extreme conditions, not only we are denying others justice but we are discrediting institutional justice. Now that's an interesting aspect of this dilemma. Why is it that Marianne Pearl, Robert Ménard and the US administration, should resort to torture of kidnappers family members in order to liberate Daniel Pearl, and at the same time, they would not be allowed to do so by law, even implicitly, if the kidnappers were US citizens ? Does this mean that penal Justice does not apply when a crime is committed on a foreign soil. Does this mean that only some people should feel entitled to breach law and not others (in this case the Afghans) ? The Geneva convention was conseived to solve such a case. To make people equal before Justice in case of wars.
There is also this vague concept of a humanitarian war. How do you treat a resistance to an armed 'Humanitarian' intervention on a foreign soil ? A crime punished by the law of war or by the law of the country in which it happens. In either cases there are institutions who treat this matter. But by keeping the concept of 'Humanitarian' armed intervention vague from a legal point of view, we are weakening both national and international Justice.

Because if you can object that this is not about Justice, but about saving the life of someone and that action is needed and one cannot wait for Justice and legal proceedings, I would answer you that if the laws of these new wars (the 'humanitarian' intervention wars) were more clear, we wouldn't have to face so many kidnappings and beheadings as they happened and continue tohappen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both Terrorism and the War on terror, as it is practised, have created an irreversibly damaging void in matters of Justice and Law, and only criminal savagery is filling this void on both sides.

And no, if my son were to be kidnapped, I would not authorise Torture of the family of his kidnappers, and I told him so. I would not allow their barbarism to reach my conscience. I would try to speak to their conscience, even if they have none, although Icannot assume 100% what will be my actual reaction in such a case.

Pierre Tristam said...

Sophia... I still make a distinction between authorizing torture and actually conducting it. In my earlier comment I meant to personalize the situation: if it was me ansd my family, I would, I think, I even hope, find myself incapable of resisting the urge or the means of becoming the torturer myself--not authorizing torture or requesting it, but actually conducting it, if the case was such (as outlandish as this sounds) that here in front of me was the slime responsible for my family's harm. I might equally hope, but not as strongly, that those authorities in charge would be the ones to stop me from going that far: the human impulse, even the humane impulse, is such that at the most personal level, when one's own family is in harm's way, there is no distinction between one's family and one's own soul and limbs. None at all. Theory is out the window. But again, this here is all theory, too. If the case arose, I could just as well prove to be the yellowest coward on the planet, hiding behind those very opposite theories of humanitarian ethics to justify my inaction.

Sophia said...


Thanks fort he comment again. It was first you who highlighted the context in which Ménard gave his position on torture; authorising torture to save someone. Now you are making a distinction between authorising or doing it in a kind of self defense, and I agree with your distinction but this moves us away from Ménard's context.
Torturing or killing for self defense to save a loved one, like lets say someone holds in front of you a knife on the throat of your child, is stil different however from direct self defense when someone is directly attacked. There is a third party between you and the attacker, which is the victim. I am ready to admit the similarity between oneself and the victim only in the case of a child because the child is not completely individuated and capable and responsible entirely for her self defense. That does not mean that we should not rescue others when they are adults and hold hostages because they are capable of defending themselves, but the term of self defense is not legally accepted in this case.

The core question is do I have morally the right to torture family members of the kidnapper or the kidnapper himself in order to save someone else, being an adult or a child ? Because there are no real life situations in which this question may arise when you are held hostage yourself. My answer is that the judicial system in opur own countries makes such an action morally wrong and unlawful. So why should it be morally right and lawful, and wispered on radio stations à demi-mot, when it is applied on a foreign soil ? You did not answer this aspect.

This is not about cowardice or fake humanitarian values. This is about justice and the moral repulsion an ordinary man might feel at killing someone.

I might, after all, be able to kill to save my child, but I will be morally and psychologically broken and I will have to account for my action before the law. Why shouldn't I have to answer before the law when this action is performed in a foreign country ? None of this was considered in Ménard's half confession. He was just asking himself the wrong questions in my opinion.

Sophia said...

Remembering our discussion once on moral values, I want to add here that although no one can know in advance what will be her or his reaction in a circumstance where a child or a family member's life is threatened, we are inlcined to react according to our education and the values we were taught, not only as individuals but as members of a family, a group, or a community, as members of a society in general. If we were taught that torture and killings are bad, it is likely that we wouldn't be able to do them ourselves neither to authorise them.
I think Ménard's comments, beyond being problematic, are symptomatic of a wider phenomenon, the devaluation of Socratic moral values in our society...

Since March 29th 2006