You might think that signing on to an international treaty -- making promises to the nations of the world -- would mean you'd attempt to abide by what you promised. These days, for the United States, some of our treaty obligations seem to be treated as so much blank paper, occasions for political spin.
The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was passed in the General Assembly in 1984, signed by President Reagan in 1988 and ratified by the Senate in 1994. In theory, we're on board with 80 other nations.
I'd be remiss if I didn't add that I've just listened my partner the author give a couple of dozen talks around the country explaining that US accession to the treaty was qualified by some magic (limiting) asterisks legally called "reservations." Our authorities apparently wanted to be sure the CIA could go on doing "academic research" on how to replicate North Korean "brainwashing" techniques used on US prisoners in that early Cold War conflict. And they were concerned that someone would claim that treatment of persons in US prisons might be torture. So the US enabling legislation only outlaws torture outside the country. Within our boundaries, legal claims of torture are covered (if recognized at all) by other existing laws.
All this is introduction to the fact that countries which have signed the treaty against torture come up for periodic review of their compliance by a United Nations Committee Against Torture. The United States will next have its turn this November 11-13 in Geneva.
In advance of that meeting, the New York Time's relentless torture reporter Charlie Savage tells us that some lawyers in the Obama administration seek to revert to Bush-era weaseling about what treatment of prisoners amounts to torture in order to give our spooks all the freedom they want to mistreat captives without fear of punishment. The Prez may be on board with this sophistry.
Meanwhile, there is an organized US-based effort to call the United States to account for torture practices. The US Human Rights Network has collected dozens of "shadow reports" that have been submitted to the UN Committee Against Torture detailing potential and actual violations of US treaty obligations. Some examples:
- The Harvard Law School Human Rights Program recommends that "the United States promptly and impartially prosecute senior military and civilian officials responsible for authorizing, acquiescing, or consenting in any way to acts of torture committed by their subordinates" including former President G.W. Bush and former DOJ lawyer John Yoo.
- The National Religious Campaign against Torture (NRCAT) calls out "the continued widespread practice of holding prisoners, disproportionately people of color in prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons" as does another another shadow report from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), and California Prison Focus (CPF).
- The Immigrant Defense Project (IDP) protests a "convergence of criminal and immigration law" which obscures the US obligation to entertain claims that deportation to home countries will subject individuals to violence and torture.