Torture and Democracy: What Now?


Co-presented with the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry (SOPHI)


Darius Rejali
2 June 2009

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Why you should listen

In his lecture for Sydney Ideas, Darius Rejali traces the development and application of one torture technique after another in the last century, and he reaches startling conclusions. As the twentieth century progressed, he argues, democracies not only tortured, but set the international pace for torture. Dictatorships may have tortured more, and more indiscriminately, but the United States, Britain, and France pioneered and exported techniques that have become the lingua franca of modern torture: methods that leave no marks. Under the watchful eyes of reporters and human rights activists, low-level authorities in the world's oldest democracies were the first to learn that to scar a victim was to advertise iniquity and invite scandal. Long before the CIA even existed, police and soldiers turned instead to "clean" techniques, such as torture by electricity, ice, water, noise, drugs, and stress positions. As democracy and human rights spread after World War II, so too did these methods. Rejali takes up the challenging question of whether torture works and will also address what to expect of the new Obama administration and the prospects for the future of torture internationally.

Darius Rejali, professor and Chair of political science at Reed College, is a nationally recognised expert on government torture and interrogation. Iranian-born, Rejali has spent his scholarly career reflecting on violence, and, specifically, reflecting on the causes, consequences, and meaning of modern torture in our world. His work spans concerns in political science, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, and critical social theory. He is a 2003 Carnegie Scholar, recognized for his innovative approaches to the study of violence.

Torture and Democracy (2007) is Rejali's most recent book. It is an unrelenting examination of the use of torture by democracies in the 20th century. It won the 2007 Human Rights Book of the Year Award from the American Political Science Association. The book has been praised in the Financial Times, Harper's, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Daily Telegraph. It has placed Rejali in the international media spotlight, positioning him among the world's preeminent scholars on torture. He has been interviewed widely, from Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! to David Frost on Al Jazeera, from the BBC to the Washington Post. He was invited to give the 2009 Human Rights Distinguished Lecture at Harvard University.