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The genealogy of torture

It sounds like the worst kind of horror novel, but a new book on the genealogy of the torture taboo by Dr Jamal James is anything but.

Dr Jamal Barnes
Dr Jamal Barnes

Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr Jamal Barnes, from Edith Cowan’s Centre for Global Issues, has torture as his particular area of expertise — and it is the subject of his new book.

In A Genealogy of the Torture Taboo, Dr Barnes looks at how society’s moral aversion to torture has evolved from the 18th century through to the present day.

With a PhD in international relations, Bachelors degrees in Politics and International Studies and Legal Studies, and First-Class Honours in Security, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Studies, Barnes developed an interest in the murky world of state-sponsored torture.

“Since completing my PhD I have come to specialise in a few areas, in particular, human rights, torture, security and international relations normative theory, and the study of international norms,” Barnes says.

His interest in the genealogy of torture was piqued while analysing the counterterrorism policy of the George W. Bush administration during his Honours.

“As part of that I did a brief section on the administration’s use of torture in the ‘war on terror’,” Barnes says.

“When researching the section, I thought it was not only interesting but extremely important.

“Through conversations with my PhD supervisors, we decided that conducting a history of the torture taboo would not only be a unique contribution to the field, but would be fascinating to research, which it was.”

His research considers whether the normal pressure not to allow torture changed once states violated that norm.

And while the ongoing use of torture under different names might suggest otherwise, he believes the taboo against torture remains strong.

Rather than openly engage in torture, he says, states do everything they can to hide it, deny it, or redefine and outsource it.

“States do this because they know that using torture is wrong and so they hide it to avoid being criticised and stigmatised as a pariah,” he says.

“If the taboo did not retain its potency, there would be no reason for states to take such measures.”

It’s not the most light-hearted subject, Barnes concedes, but it has led him on to other new and interesting avenues of research.

“I’m now looking at the relationship between torture, migration and asylum seekers or refugees,” he says.

“And I’ve got a project examining the detention policies of states during counterterrorism operations and war and the challenges of upholding the torture taboo during this time.”


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