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The (de)legitimation of torture: Rhetoric, shaming and narrative contestation in two British cases

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)102-126
Number of pages25
Issue number1
Early online date9 Sep 2020
Accepted/In press23 Jul 2020
E-pub ahead of print9 Sep 2020
Published1 Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information: The author disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant scheme, 2016 Round, Award number: SG152996. Publisher Copyright: © The Author(s) 2020. Copyright: Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


King's Authors


Existing studies on democracies? involvement in torture emphasise how governments have been able to circumvent the international anti-torture norm and shape public discourse on the issue through powerful rhetorical strategies of denial and exception. Less attention has been paid, however, to the rhetoric of opponents of torture and how it impacts on governments and security agencies. This article proposes a typology of four common arguments against torture, which make use variously of ethical, utilitarian and ?shaming? rhetoric. These arguments often take a narrative form and are extensively contested by governments. Drawing on the literature on rhetorical coercion, I argue that anti-torture narratives can play an important role in constraining democratic states and significantly reducing their perpetration of torture. Yet the multiplicity of narratives at play opens up opportunities for governments to accept some messages against torture while simultaneously contesting others in a way which enables them to continue their involvement in torture. I develop this argument through a comparative analysis of the role of torture in two British counterterrorism campaigns ? against Irish republican terrorism in the 1970s and against jihadist violence after 9/11. Differences in the content and salience of the narratives advanced by critics of the government during the two time periods explain much about why the British government contested some arguments against torture, but accepted others. This variation helps to explain in turn why British security agencies carried out coercive interrogations on a wide scale during the 1970s, while their perpetration of torture was significantly reduced in the post-9/11 case.

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