American torture actually an issue of standards vagueness?

by Rick Jelliffe

One problem with standards based on text or formalisms only, is that it is very difficult to test them. RDF's original home-made grammar for example. By contrast well-formedness, validity, Schematron, test suites: all of these are directly testable and provide a bedrock for XML development: the standard-provider needs provides the other side of the coin to "trust but also verify": be trustworthy but also verifiable.


2006-09-07 17:33:25

The world is a fuzzy place. The future is fuzzy Ontologies, and the key to cognitive computing. It is evident from your illogical ranting on torture that you lack the ability to understand that the world is inherently gray, the terrorist exploit it, and so should US.

Were were your Geneva conventions on the numerous beheading by your terrorist friends in Darfur, Thailand, Balkans, and Kashmir ? So sound like a somebody on the Wahhabi payroll just like many media, academics, and even poliicians.

If both sides follow Geneva convention then fine, but you want us to give beheaders the Geneva convention! It is obvious that you don't wish well for US.

Anyway, I am sure me along with many readers don't care for your "opinions" in a technical magazine. What is tragic is your lack of logic, fairness, and treasonous conduct.

2006-09-07 17:41:16
Yes, in article III, (a) is "the big one". However, from the quote you cite by US President Bush, he specifically refers to (c) "Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment", which indeed leaves room for varying interpretation.

There are, of course, things that all people would agree are degrading or humiliating but there are also many things that one person may dub degrading while another may not. A humourous example would be toilet cleaning duty - during my youthful days of summer camp, toilet cleaning duty was a "punishment most degrading"! Now, however, its just something I do to be healthy. The terms "degrading" and "humiliating" are certainly flexible enough, simply by their very personalized nature and application, to leave substantial room for broad and even opposing definition from one situation, one person, to the next.

The US President did say "and other provisions", but this is a somewhat common english phrase that people use all the time to add emphasis: "this and other..." or "this and similar..." so I wouldn't take it too literally; provision (c) was the obvious focus. If he was thinking of specific other provision he could have easily been referring to the first part of (d) "Passing of sentances..." which immediately demands: what kind of sentances? Does this include sentances of detainment?

I am not an American, but I am disturbed when I find Americans who presume the worst of their president. Maybe its a fair presumption; power leads to corruption indeed. Freedom of speech is a powerful tool to fight corruption and I am glad when I observe it exercised in a fair manner. This post, however, is wedging words into a speech that were not there nor, I trust, ever intended by the speaker.

2006-09-07 18:37:12
Well, my mistake, I should have read the speech before posting a comment. Actually, I did not need to read the speech, your post has the important part already quoted. Its very clear that the US President is talking about provision (d) in addition to (c) which he mentions specifically.

The specific piece of the speech that makes this clear is, "the Supreme Court's recent decision has impaired our ability to prosecute terrorists through military commissions". Provision (d) is: "The passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples."

Obviously, there is an issue prosecuting via a milliatry commission as opposed to a "regularly consistuted court", which is somewhat vague: an millitary commission is indeed a court, but what exactly is meant by "regularly consitituted"?

It seems quite clear that provision (a), "the big one" as you say, is at most a very fringe component of this speech, if it is a component at all. I am at a loss as to how one might regard (a) as the inferred provision while the context of the quote is clearly speaking to (d).

2006-09-07 19:09:27
Well, I am feeling sheepish again. I assumed you were an American. Austrailian, maybe? How ironic, people assume I am American when I travel, why is that? I suppose because America always has everyone's attention. During the US 2004 elections I was working in Ireland and people in office cubicals would pop up with up-to-the-minute announcements about the pending outcome. I almost started to laugh it seemed to odd!
Rick Jelliffe
2006-09-07 21:26:41
Mawrya: but President Bush talks of "capturing and questioning".
M. David Peterson
2006-09-07 23:55:53
On Trust, fair enough; There are reasons to have doubts, and therefore reason to be weary of trust.

On Verifiability; There is plenty of vagueness in the definition. What we need is a test.

Test: Determine if [this] is humiliating to [subject] and therefore punishable as international war crimes.

Variable A: What is [this]?
Variable B: Who is the [subject]?

With [A], we could then determine if this is considered humiliating to [B]. To make this determination, we need a list of items, each of which can be compared to [A].

Is [item: murder] vague?

Usually not, but there has been more one trial for murder in which was based on a determination of self defense. What if subject[A] lays down all visible arms, and yet has a bomb strapped to his body in which he plans to set off as soon as he is approached by a group of military personnel?

Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms...

Has this same person laid down their arms? Visible arms, yes, but this person is still armed and quite dangernous.

Of course you could state, "well thats never going to happen... I mean, who would blow themselves up???" though I think we both, unfortunately, know the answer to that question.

Is [item: mutilation] vague?

Again, usually not. But mutilation of what? Body, more than likely, but would mutilation of personal belongings quailify as well? Probably not, but again, its vague.

Is [item: cruel treatment] vague?

As mawrya points out, cruel treatment is relative to ones own culture and ones own mind. My brother-in-law who is a professor and researcher for United State University in the field of Biology will go out of his way to ensure that a spider in which has entered his him is humanely captured, and then set free again outside. I, on the other hand, will immediatelly begin searching for the first shoe in site.

While there is an obvious difference between a spider and a human, the same is true in regards to human culture and the human mind, and therefore "cruel treatment" again, is vague.

Is [item: torture] vague?

Would it be tortuous to you if you were forced, at gun point, to watch the brutal beheading of one the soldiers in your unit?

M. David Peterson
2006-09-07 23:57:31
I messed up on my data points. Where reference Subject[A] seems as if it should have stated Subject[B], it should have.
M. David Peterson
2006-09-08 00:00:16
"United State University"?

Lest try "Utah State University"!

Damn 200x400 text areas! ;) :D

Rick Jelliffe
2006-09-08 02:02:16
David: We don't avoid murder, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture of prisoners because of good manners. We do it because we (my country is in the Coallition of the Willing) have an obligation under the Geneva Conventions that we signed onto, because we don't want to give carte blanche to our enemies to do the same to us (John McCain is very strong on this), because it is unreliable and other methods are more reliable (again, McCain is strong on these), because it can produce forbidden fruit for court proceedings, because it opens the door to indiscipline and lawlessness, because it corrupts those participating in it, because it feeds the enemy, and primarily because it sacrifices any chance of winning the war on terror on the altar of preventing individual atrocities: in geekspeak, it is a local optimization that causes a global failure.

Tony Blair's August 1 speech puts it well: it is a global fight about global values; it is about modernisation, within Islam and outside of it; it is about whether our value system can be shown to be sufficiently robust, true, principled and appealing that it beats theirs...This is not just about security or military tactics. It is about hearts and minds about inspiring people, persuading them, showing them what our values at their best stand for. (

Now perhaps Alex might think that Tony Blair is on the Wahhabist payroll, with treasonous conduct and terrorist friends! And perhaps David might think that we should turn a blind eye to waterboarding because somehow it keeps the subject occupied and so prevents them from beheading our collegues or exploding themselves. (I suspect that detainees in secret prisons would have have had their bombs and machetes removed!) Anyway, I support the US military's restated rules, Congress' act, the Supreme Court's ruling, and Tony Blair's call. McCain says it well in

M. David Peterson
2006-09-08 05:27:44

Fair enough. I don't completely disagree. My primary point is that at the surface level, the terms murder, mutilation, cruel treatment or torture seem pretty straight forward, there are various edge cases in which require a stronger definition to what each of these means. Maybe something like this isn't the kind of thing anybody would want to read. But providing stronger definitions, and therefore a clearer understanding of what each of these terms mean in specific regards to Articel III of the Geneva Convention will ensure that the true and pure spirit of the Geneva Convention can be upheld, without running risk of post-action interpretations putting a soldier in jail because of making a heat-of-the-battle decision in such a way that upholds the spirit of the law, but not the letter-of-the-law because for all intents and purposes, the letter-of-the-law was defined AFTER the apparent crime was committed.

War SUCKS!!! It's UGLY!!! It's also very real. To make clearer definitions of these things certainly couldn't hurt, and it most certainly could help quite a bit.

2006-09-08 10:03:22
Dave, Rick is right. It isn't the way to get it done and it erodes the very values we treasure without contributing to our security or our well-being. Worse, any ops type can tell you this doesn't work nearly as well as other means.

War is mean and ugly. Do we become that by fighting one? How can we ever expect respect if we lie, torture, and condemm without due process?

If we forget the rules, there aren't any, but if we create new ones, we may have to live with them for a very long time. ABC is about to broadcast a fictitious version of the events leading up to 9/11 as part of a right-wing concerted effort to once again light the fire of fear and mistrust to save their butts in the midterm elections. They are encouraging it to be shown in every school in America. By contrast, the movie Flight 93 depicts real heroism and sacrifice in the face of the despicable. Which do you think is more important for kids to see?

As for Americans mistrusting our President, well folks, that is what a free people do when they are lied to, and if his entire party backs his play, we vote them out and try the other party.

2006-09-10 01:42:06
I am having trouble seeing the significance of the reference to "capturing and questioning", from the part of the quote that reads "And some believe our military and intelligence personnel involved in capturing and questioning terrorists could now be at risk of prosecution under the War Crimes Act..."

Capturing and questioning are acceptable proceedures, unless they are taken to an extreme and cross over the boundaries set out in Article III. In the speech, concern is expressed that there may be a perceived breach of these boundaries but there is no specific reason to assume the breach would fall under provision (a), which deals with torture, violence, and cruel treatment. To the contrary, it seems clear, from the context, the concern lies the flexiblity in provisions (b) and the specifically mentioned (c). The personel where probably using techniques that could be interpreted, by some, as humiliating and degrading, and so are at risk of prosecution.

If the quote read "captured and tortured", I would see a direct link to provision (a), but it does not. Considering (c) is explicitly mentioned and (b) is obviously referenced, both with concern for their ill definition, then immediately followed by concern for personel who may be affected by such ill definition, I see no link to (a). It does not follow.

With this in mind, there is nothing sickening about the US President's use of the words "thorough and professional". Of course, mixing the crime of torture with the words "thorough and professional" is certainly sickening. This, however, is not the case, nor is it even eluded to.

Rick Jelliffe
2006-09-10 03:40:45
Mawrya: As I read the US President's speech, the bottom line is that he states that the recent way of capturing and interrogating terrorists could be considered war crimes whether by US and international courts. He also states that the current methods of capturing and interrogation will cause problems with prosecution in non-kangaroo courts.

However, President Bush paints it as if trivial problems are likely to be blown out of proportion by courts: but there is a difference between a soldier carrying on his normal work and a soldier participating in a My Lai style massacre, just as there is a difference between rough handling of a stroppy prisoner in transport and the purposed withdrawal of medical care or heating or sleep from a prisoner in captivity; soldiers and officers need to be aware that following orders indeed may not be an adequate excuse to prevent future prosecution.

President Bush mentions the mildest, most trivial of the Geneva Convention provisions, yet it is the section (b) provisions that observers are concerned with. The new rules of military interrogation ( forbid hooding, dog attacks, stress positions, hypothermia, waterboarding, electric shocks, and so on, all of which are tortures. When President Bush says "The United States does not torture" it is very welcome (putting aside outsourced interogations?), but how can that be reconciled with

The other aspect is that at least some in the Whitehouse have an extreme definition of torture that only includes permanent physical or psychological damage: if it leaves no scars it is not torture. See

But the United Nations' Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, says the term "torture" means any
act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is
intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or
a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a
third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or
intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on
discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at
the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or
other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or
suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
See and (details) The US is a member to this convention, which has no legal teeth but its definition is not new: when President Bush says "The United States does not torture" I hope he means using the internationally accepted definition of torture, not the Gonzales' weasel worded one.

Also interesting, in the Washington Post article quoted above, is the US Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence saying at a press conference "no good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tells us that." This again is admission both that abusive practises occurred and that they don't work; contrast this with President Bush who talks of using "tough" and "lawful" practises to break KSM.

2006-09-13 07:33:37

I just added the RSS feed. I am attempting to bring myself up to speed so I can advise some clients. This article is one which I read.

You wrote:

The XML Schemas specification is notoriously difficult to understand and complex to implement. Article III of the Geneva Convention must be, also. Read it on the link above and make up your own mind. Its unspeakably tragic.

It's simply amazing to me you drew this comparison. I won't waste my time explaining to you why. No one should need to. Besides, I feel I need to take a bath now.

Shame on you.

Rick Jelliffe
2006-09-14 03:05:07
Patrick: I almost didn't post this, because it is an intrusion of a non-technical issue in a blog in a technical website that gets syndicated by other technical feeds, such as XML.COM.

On the other hand, I have a long interest in the connection between standards and global perceptions: for example, in 2000 I spoke at the XML conference in San Jose, on the subject of why internationlization of XML and computer languages was important, and I explicitly warned that there was a growing cloud of anti-Western sentiment which would only be increased by a difficulty in participating in the information economy. (I was thinking primarily of Moslem nations which was not PC to mention then, and I explicitly ruled out saying I was talking about China.) I was astounded that, after making what I thought should be a fairly alarming speach, not one person mentioned it: perhaps I was convincing, perhaps it fell on deaf ears, at least I tried.

But the thing that decided me to publish this was that I, as do a lot of people, have to deal with interpreting standards often. Very rarely do people come up and wilfully interpret a standard in a way completely against its meaning. It takes a certain kind of devious mind to try to look for loopholes: indeed, we have the term Clintonesque where statements are made using private interpretations of terms that are at variance with their usual meaning. In Catholic terms, you are allowed to equivocate (say something that can be taken the wrong way by an interrogator but which is true in your limited meanings) when the interrogator has no right to ask the questions. Perhaps that is what Clinton thought he was doing. Perhaps that is what President Bush thinks he is doing too. But certainly citizens have a right to read the Geneva Conventions and the other support material to better inform themselves.

I hope you enjoyed your bath.

Kurt Cagle
2006-09-14 12:58:57

Ah, I see you've waded into the quagmire. My condolences.

There is a fundamental difference between a standard and a law. A standard is a agreement between parties to uphold certain behavior which provides mutual benefit - I will not torture your prisoners because I know that in doing so I open up the possibility that you will reprise against me in the same way. A law, on the other hand, states that should you not perform in accordance with the law, you will be subject to civil or criminal penalties, ranging from fines to death depending upon the seriousness of the offense.

The Geneva Conventions are standards, and they are good ones - they were developed during World War II in order to insure that prisoners on either side could not be abused. However, like so many such agreements, conventions and standards, the Geneva Accords were in general as notable for their breach as for their observance. Those countries that did so, however, risked sanctions and other reprisals from those who did willfully violate the conventions.

Now, this is not the same as war crimes. A war crime, as originally based upon the Nuremburg trials and expanded over the years, is considered a gross breach against humanity, when the leadership of a country (either directly or indirectly) has committed offenses including mass murder, rape, torture, and so forth without regard for due process of either their own country or those that they are invading.

Now, by all indications Bush may have used fabricated evidence, lies, distortions and false testimony in order to invade Iraq. He has authorized the use of torture, tacitly of course, by agreeing with the council of his current AG (Gonzales) concerning the use of same. He has routinely ignored Congressional orders for more information and openness with regard to his actions. He has generally turned a blind eye towards abuses unless such abuses become public knowledge. He has maintained offshore prison facilities outside of the jurisdiction of the US legal system which has regularly condoned abusive and degrading behavior upon its inmates, and has regularly ignored due process considerations that are considered the bedrock of the American judicial system.

These are all publicly documented -- they are a matter of public record, and not just calumnies spread by his opponents. They readily fit into the definition of war crimes, perhaps even more so than the actions of such dictators as Saddam Hussein or Milosevich.

Does this excuse those people who took captives and executed them in an attempt to stop the war? No - they are guilty of crimes, though under what authority they would be charged for those crimes still remains to be seen. There is, however, a curious logic which seems to state that simply because one person commits a crime against his enemies that his enemies are themselves innocent, at least with regard to the arguments I've seen here or elsewhere.

The Geneva Conventions are constraints not on the behavior of individuals but on the behaviors of states, which are considerably more powerful. Iraq currently is a seething anarchy with no clear leaders, no internally generated policy (only the external policy imposed by the US) and in general no checks to insure that such criminal behaviors as torture, executions and kidnapping are considered to be politically unpalatable. The US, on the other hand, is a wealthy state with the world's largest military, capable of destroying the world itself many times over within an hour. If there are no checks upon the behavior of that state, if there are no mechanisms to insure that this power is not abused, then it will be abused (and frankly it is being abused). It is for this reason as much as any that the US of all countries should respect the Geneva Conventions.

Unfortunately, the reprisals that will inevitably come will likely only reinforce this particular regime, make it even more insulated and dangerous than it already is. Right now, I think that the US is a lot like Mel Gibson - people remember his past glory, but are increasingly uncomfortable with the drunkenness, the blatant racism, and the crudity that he now seems to wallow in. The rest of the world keeps hoping that maybe the US will somehow restore itself to those better days in the past, while ignoring the obvious signs of dissolution, but already the US is becoming a pariah in many organizations worldwide, its influence diminished, perhaps irrevokably.

-- Kurt