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On 'Waterboarding': Legal Interpretation and the Continuing Struggle for Human Rights

21 Pages Posted: 28 May 2008  

Daniel Kanstroom

Boston College - Law School

Date Written: May 27, 2008


While some aspects of the "waterboarding" debate are largely political, the practice also implicates deeply normative underpinnings of human rights and law. Attorney General Michael Mukasey has steadfastly declined to declare waterboarding illegal or to launch an investigation into past waterboarding. His equivocations have generated anguished controversy because they raise a fundamental question: should we balance "heinousness and cruelty" against information that we "might get"? Mr. Mukasey's approach appears to be careful lawyering. However, it portends a radical and dangerous departure from a fundamental premise of human rights law: the inherent dignity of each person. Although there is some lack of clarity about the precise definition of torture, all is not vagueness, or reliance on "circumstances," and post hoc judgments. We have clear enough standards to conclude that waterboarding is and was illegal. Official legal equivocation about waterboarding preserves the potential imprimatur of legality for torture. It substitutes a dangerously fluid utilitarian balancing test for the hard-won respect for human dignity at the base of our centuries-old revulsion about torture. That is precisely what the rule of law (and the best lawyers) ought not to do.

Keywords: torture, human rights, human dignity, Michael Mukasey

Suggested Citation

Kanstroom, Daniel, On 'Waterboarding': Legal Interpretation and the Continuing Struggle for Human Rights (May 27, 2008). Boston College Third World Law Journal, Vol. 28, 2008; Boston College Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 157. Available at SSRN:

Daniel Kanstroom (Contact Author)

Boston College - Law School ( email )

885 Centre Street
Newton, MA 02459-1163
United States

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