To change the meaning of words that used to be well understood is to set off down a very slippery slopeby Mary Dejevsky / November 2, 2017 / Leave a comment
Most English-speakers, I imagine, would have little difficulty defining torture. They would be equally clear about slavery. In the first instance, we would be talking abhorrent physical methods used to try to extract information; in the second, the buying and selling of human beings for their labour.
What were once quite specific and commonly accepted meanings, however, seem to be developing a new elasticity, thanks in part to decisions made by judges and legislators; in part to pressure from well-meaning campaigners.
Last month, a high court judge found in favour of seven asylum-seekers, who had been detained pending decisions on their applications. Their case was that, as per the Home Office’s own guidelines, they should not have been detained because they had survived torture. The ruling, handed down by Mr Justice Ousely, turned on the definition of torture.
It emerged that for several years, in deciding who should be detained, the Home Office had applied a broader definition of torture than the one set out in the UN Convention Against Torture. The broader definition included rape and sexual assault, as well as maltreatment inflicted by someone in pursuit of a personal grievance, rather than in the name of a state or other recognised authority.
Two years ago, however, the Home Office had brought its definition into line with the narrower, UN, definition, and the seven asylum-seekers in the recent court case had fallen on a certain side of that line. In what was hailed as a great victory by Medical Justice, the charity that brought the case, the judge upheld the broader definition and ruled that it should have applied. The Home Office said it would not appeal.
“What were once commonly accepted meanings seem to be developing a new elasticity”
Now it should be stressed that this case was not about the definition of torture as it applies to the granting of asylum—where torture is a persuasive, but not absolutely conclusive, factor, and the narrower, UN, definition applies. It was only about the exemption of torture victims from detention while their asylum claims are assessed, on the grounds that, by replicating conditions of confinement, detention might well compound their suffering.
But it raises several questions. Is it…