Secrecy is as indispensable to human beings as fire, and as greatly feared - Sissela Bok
In recent times, calls for transparency have intensified in international politics. Examples abound: Wikileaks, public commissions of inquiry, international inspections. Yet so too are calls for the necessity of secrecy.
In this post I provide a brief sketch of the diverse arguments that underpin the debates around publicity, and I describe how these debates can matter in the world today with reference to the upcoming UK torture inquiry.
1. The Inquiry
Earlier this month, lawyers and representatives of human rights groups threatened to boycott the long awaited ‘Gibson’ inquiry: a public inquiry established to examine the UK’s role in torture and rendition. These groups objected to the announcement that certain hearings will be heard in secret and that – much like the ongoing Chilcot inquiry – the cabinet secretary will retain a final veto on what information can be publicly disclosed. Ten of these NGOs, including Liberty, Reprieve and Amnesty International, released an open letter in which they state:
As you know, we were keen to assist the inquiry in the vital work of establishing the truth about allegations that UK authorities were involved in the mistreatment of detainees held abroad. Our strong view, however, is that the process currently proposed does not have the credibility or transparency to achieve this
By contrast, in a BBC radio interview Malcolm Rifkind – ex foreign sec and chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) – suggested that such complaints were based on unrealistic assumptions:
I cannot recollect an inquiry that’s been proposed to be so open as we’re having in this particular case. When was the last time the head of MI5 and the head of MI6 – the prime minister has made quite clear – can be summoned to this inquiry and be required to give evidence?
2. Why transparency?
One cannot equate transparency = good, secrecy = bad. These arguments depend heavily on why transparency is being sought in the first place.
Publicity is sometimes sought because it ensures that decisions are made in accordance with public right.
One way to value transparency is to argue that it helps us learn and progress toward a better understanding of what is just
From the deontological ethic, Kant asserted that: “all actions affecting the rights of other human beings are wrong if their maxim is not compatible with their being made public.”
Another way to value transparency is to argue that it is a means of holding others to just standards. The utilitarian Bentham argued that “the eye of the public makes the statesmen virtuous” and that publicity motivates citizens to accept the legitimacy of the state and its legislation. Suspicion, Bentham claims, always attaches to mystery. JJ Marquardt has an interesting take on how this relates to IR.
But there are arguments against transparency
A century after Bentham another utilitarian, Elster, argued that deliberation in secret is a justifiable way of encouraging better discussion and fuller consideration” Publicity creates political pressure, it hinders participants from changing their minds or make participants worry about what the public might think. Even Kant suggested that the publicity test might be undertaken in private, indeed alone, as an exercise of pure reason and self-reflexivity.
But publicity is also sought for other reasons. We may want publicity for catharsis – to provide an occasion for reconciliation. We may want publicity to provide a reassurance that ‘something is being done’ and that the public can have confidence that wrongs are righted.
It is much more difficult to argue that secrecy is justified in these circumstances.
‘Foreign-policy public inquiries’ often feature restrictions for the sake of national security especially if one assumes that the international realm requires a different set of rules to the domestic. In relation to another recent public inquiry, the Cabinet Secretary has claimed that secrecy has been a necessity in order to protect the international relations of the UK.
Whether through a consequentialist calculus or belief that reason is best achieved beyond the glare of the public, secrecy can be justified in the interests of the public. Mearsheimer’s new book provides a range of reasons why leaders will keep information from the public domain for good reasons – if you are a realist.
Historically in the UK, public inquiries have first and foremost been a matter of learning lessons and finding fact; the role of public catharsis is a secondary concern.
However a public inquiry following public outcry toward the illiberal acts of the liberal state is an event where catharsis and reassurance are important. These practices are performative – they are important in drawing a line in the sand where justice has been brought; whether the British state is implicated in torture or not, the past is delineated from the future. Here, secrecy is an enemy of stability and progress.
3. It’s political
Even if we agree that increased transparency is desirable in these circumstances, transparency and Secrecy are not practically separable.
What we know is determined by the means of knowing. How we regard something is determined by a methodology. How social facts are told and interpreted affects what facts are deemed as ‘true’. As a very basic example, take the difference between adversarial and inquisitorial modes of questioning – which of these is likely to provide more accurate social facts?
If publics are increasing asking for transparency and openness, what kinds of facts are be released? What kinds of narratives are being told? And how are these contingent upon specific ways in which practices of publicity are being assembled?
For those that boycott the Gibson inquiry, it isn’t enough to demand openness. The very rules of discourse need to be open to critique in order to understand how particular social facts are produced.
Mulder and Scully got it wrong, the truth isn’t out there; it’s immanent to the way we look for it. Transparency will not yield deus ex machina – ‘god out of the machine’ – or alien space bats. We must think critically about demanding publicity.
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