Friday, November 14, 2014

UN review puts US on the hot seat about torture treaty

Over the last two days, US State Department representatives have tried to answer questions from a United Nations expert panel in Geneva about our compliance with our obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (often called CAT).

Their job hasn't been easy. It's hard to put lipstick on a pig.

Legal advocates who have long represented Guantanamo prisoners and other human casualaties of our global war on our fears raised the resort to torture the Prez has admitted, the use of brutal force-feeding on inmates, and indefinite captivity.

Advocates for US domestic prisoners charged that widespread use of solitary confinement violates our treaty obligations. So does police brutality.

Numerous civil society groups who know perfectly well that they are not heard within the United States -- gays subjected to "reparative therapy," transgender people, homeless citizens, Chicago youth members of We Charge Genocide (pictured) -- seized the opportunity to make their case.

Mike Brown's parents came from Ferguson to testify to the brutality of militarized law enforcement.

The best account of the two-day hearing I've seen is from Newsweek. Extensive excerpts follow:

  • Where does the U.S. think it is restricted by its CAT obligations?
    Alessio Bruni, one of the committee’s experts, asked the U.S. representatives to elaborate on whether the government believes the prohibition on torture applies to its officials “abroad without geographic limitation.” But in answering the question, the U.S. reiterated its vague position.

    Representatives responded that the CIA no longer operates secret detention facilities and clarified that the U.S. understands the CAT obligations to only apply “where the U.S. acts as a governmental authority,” by which they meant on U.S. soil, in Cuba, and on ships and aircraft.
  • What parts of CAT does the U.S. adhere to abroad?
    The experts cited instances in which the U.S. violated CAT abroad, and asked for clarification “as to whether the U.S. considers all aspects of the convention to be applicable.”

    Bruni wondered how the U.S. was able to reconcile the force-feeding of Guantanamo prisoners with the terms of the treaty, and how it could claim it was not operating secret facilities when it fails to register detainees, calling registration “a first step to prevent torture since his or her identity and location are a sort of deterrent against any form of ill treatment, which needs secrecy to be carried out with total impunity.”
  • Has anyone been prosecuted for torture?
    Since the U.S. last reported to the committee in 2006, more evidence of violations have been reported by the media or alleged by human rights groups. But the U.S. has done little to demonstrate that it is holding the top officials who gave the orders to torture accountable. Groups like the Advocates for U.S. Torture Prosecutions say that the United States is shielding those responsible, which is in direct violation of its CAT obligations.

    “It’s is at the heart of everything,” Deborah Popowski, a clinical instructor at the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School and a member of Advocates for U.S. Torture Prosecutions said in an interview with Newsweek.
  • Do U.S. domestic prison conditions align with CAT?
    The committee brought up the U.S. prison system and inquired as to how current practices can be justified in light of the country’s CAT obligations. Among the concerns were the use of solitary confinement, the treatment of minors and those with mental health disorders in particular, the lack of accountability for prison officials who have been accused of sexual abuse, and the sentencing of those who have committed nonviolent offenses to life without parole.

    U.S. representative Deputy Assistant Attorney General David Bitkower said that solitary confinement is not imposed with the intention of inflicting psychological harm on inmates. The U.S. could not provide a number of inmates in solitary confinement.

    The U.S. representatives also touched upon minors in prison, saying that 7,400 juveniles were in adult prisons in 2011 and followed with the claim that sexual assault is higher in juvenile facilities than in adult prisons. The delegation also assured the committee that if states do not adhere to federal standards regarding the sexual abuse of prisoners they lose funding.
  • What about police brutality and militarization at home?
    Jens Modvig, another expert serving on the committee, asked whether anything was being done to prevent police from using excessive force or if any steps were being taken to review the distribution of military equipment to local law enforcement, especially in light of the events that occurred over the summer in Ferguson, Missouri or the prolonged gun violence in Chicago.

    Voicing concerns about the treatment of black people in the U.S. is a rare occurrence at the U.N.

    As the U.S. delegation skirted around these questions about police misconduct, youth from Chicago staged a silent protest to commemorate those killed by law enforcement.

The United States Human Rights Network took the lead in this country on organizing community groups for this periodic review.


Rain Trueax said...

I wonder how much real power the UN has about anything. I guess they are down on US states, like Oregon, where the citizens have voted to legalize pot. Since it's considered a dangerous, controlled substance at the UN, they are not happy and trying to decide what they will do about it-- if anything. I was annoyed with them because alcohol is dangerous too if it's misused. In some countries heroin has even been legalized but I never heard them going after them. I have never used pot although my kids have. I voted though to legalize it due to the ridiculousness of putting people in prison for its use/sale when without a doubt alcohol has the equal potential to cause grief. Of course, I've heard of some who would like to have another Prohibition including both-- It was so successful in the 30s.

The UN, as it functions today, is another of those places I tend to think more to the right and irritate the left. It is not that I would not like to see a world effort to make things better but not sure, humans, being what they are, it ever works out. Giving a worldwide organization power over our country isn't appealing to me

janinsanfran said...

The UN has no power over us. We signed a treaty and made some promises about our behavior -- the only influence the rest of the world has over our compliance is to withhold their good opinion. They often do. Since the Declaration of Independence, we've thought our legitimacy had something to do with the "opinion of mankind." This seems an outlandish idea, but has more potency than we often realize.

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