Without prosecutions, Senate’s ‘reaffirmation’ of torture prohibition largely meaningless
Human rights groups are welcoming the Senate’s adoption yesterday of an anti-torture amendment as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2016, despite the fact that it doesn’t provide for any accountability to those who have authorized or committed torture in the past.
Officially called “the reaffirmation of the prohibition on torture,” the amendment, introduced last week by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), effectively prohibits U.S. officials from using torture techniques including mock executions, sexual humiliation, hooding prisoners and waterboarding by requiring they follow the U.S. Army Field Manual. It was adopted by a vote of 78-21.
“Without this amendment, abuses committed in the name of national security, such as forced rectal feeding and mock burials, would be all too easy for the CIA to repeat in a climate of fear-mongering about terrorism,” said Amnesty International USA’s executive director, Steven W. Hawkins.
Human Rights First praised what it called the “historic bipartisan amendment that prevents the future use of torture by any U.S. government agency.” The legislation, according to the group, will “ensure that the use of torture or cruel treatment is never again the official policy of the United States.”
But will it?
The fact remains that the torture techniques authorized by the White House and committed by the CIA in the years following 9/11 were already illegal – serious violations of both international law and domestic law – so it’s not entirely clear what is new about this “reaffirmation” of the prohibition on torture.
In fact, torture has long been banned by Common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions, which was further codified by the 1987 UN Convention Against Torture (CAT). The CAT provides a clear-cut definition of what constitutes the practice — which the U.S. is clearly guilty of as documented in the Senate report on torture released last year.
As stated in Article 1 of the CAT:
[T]orture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.
The CAT further unambiguously states that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
As a state party to both the Geneva Conventions and the CAT, the United States has adopted domestic legislation to ensure compliance with the treaties’ provisions. The War Crimes Act punishes any grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, including any violation of Common Article 3.
The Torture Statute, formally known as Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113C of the U.S. Code, provides for life in prison, or even the death penalty if the victim dies, for anyone who commits, attempts, or conspires to commit torture outside the United States. (Domestic incidents of torture are covered by state criminal statutes.)
The law consists of three sections (2340, 2340A, and 2340B), which define the crime of torture.
(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—
(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
(C) the threat of imminent death; or
(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and
(3) “United States” means the several States of the United States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States.
In other words, it is not enough for the Senate to simply “reaffirm” a so-called “torture ban.” There is a legally binding obligation under the Convention Against Torture, in fact, to “take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction” and to “make these offences punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature.”
For its part, Amnesty International did acknowledge yesterday – despite generally welcoming the Senate vote – that more must be done to bring the United States into compliance with its international obligations:
This legislation is one step of many that the U.S. government must take to guard against a return to torture and other ill-treatment and abide by its international human rights obligations. The U.S. government has not brought any criminal charges against those responsible for torture and enforced disappearances in the CIA secret detention program. Nor has the U.S. government withdrawn U.S. reservations to UN human rights treaties—reservations that the George W. Bush-era Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel exploited to write permission slips for torture and other ill-treatment.
The torturers in the CIA have for too long been protected by the Obama administration and U.S. Department of Justice, even while human rights defenders and whistleblowers such as John Kiriakou, Jeffrey Sterling and Chelsea Manning have been sent away for long prison terms for much less serious offenses. It is long past time for this double standard to be lifted and the committers (and authorizers) of torture to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
About The Compliance CampaignCampaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/compliancecamp Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/compliancecamp Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at] gmail.com.
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