The definition of torture given to Australian troops who interrogate prisoners is sure to be the subject of questioning when our military brass next appears before a Senate Committee. Attorney General Philip Ruddock guaranteed that when he avoided defining what is and is not permissible when questioned about new US legislation that leaves the question up to the new version of military commissions.

“In relation to torture, the United States has made it clear that torture is not permissible (but) some decisions will have to be taken as to what constitutes torture for the military commission process and those who are adjudicating the matter will determine that,” Mr Ruddock said after being briefed in Washington.

The closest Mr Ruddock came to a definition was to suggest that the new US laws allowed interrogators to use aggressive interrogation techniques against terror suspects – including sleep deprivation. In Australia, Greens Leader Bob Brown has already disagreed with that interpretation and Labor legal affairs spokeswoman Nicola Roxon says Mr Ruddock’s comments could put Australia on a path towards using torture.

All the opposition parties know that this is a difficult area if they are to avoid charges that they are soft on terrorists but they also know that the Australians who could suffer most from a loose definition of torture are our own military at risk of being captured. While his views might have been ignored by Congress, Colin Powell, President Bush’s former secretary of state and chief of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that suggestions to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions would cause the world to doubt the moral basis of the war on terrorism and put U.S. troops at risk.

The unstated definition of torture in the US seems to mean that “it’s not torture if it doesn’t kill you or if the excruciating pain and injuries don’t lead to organ failure.” This is a long way from Article 3 of the Geneva Convention which says:

In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:

(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria. To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:

(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;

(b) taking of hostages;

(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment;

(d) 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.