By resisting release of Senate report and speaking in legalese, White House disappoints international community

November 19, 2014
by Faiza Patel

Anti torture activists dressed in the or

This year President Barack Obama rejected two excellent opportunities to close the door on the shameful use of torture and cruelty by the United States. First, his administration has resisted attempts by Senate investigators to release a coherent version of their report on torture by the Central Intelligence Agency. Such refusals have led to speculation that they have sought to delay matters so that Republicans can block its release after they take control of the chamber in January. Second, the Obama State Department said last week that the Convention Against Torture requires it to prevent torture only in places that the U.S. “controls as a governmental authority.”

The media made much of the U.S. declaration that “torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment are forbidden in all places, at all times, with no exceptions.” But this statement of principle is not new. Starting with President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. has taken the position that torture and cruel treatment are banned. President George W. Bush departed from this principle — although even he paid lip service to the ideal.

More strikingly, the U.S. didn’t explain whether it believed that torture and cruel treatment was forbidden worldwide under domestic law or under the torture treaty. This distinction is important. The brutal tactics employed by the U.S. after 9/11 have led many observers to question its commitment to postwar human rights treaties. Both allied and hostile nations were watching to see if Obama acknowledged that the U.S. was bound by global torture standards. His answer did not reassure them.

The goal of the torture treaty is twofold: to reiterate the absolute ban on torture and to effect the ban by requiring countries to take practical measures to prevent and punish torture, no matter where it takes place.

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