USA: Daily injustice, immeasurable damage

March 5, 2010

USA: Daily injustice, immeasurable damage

More than 400 days after President Obama committed his administration to an “unprecedented” level of transparency in order to promote accountability, the administration continues to block release of information about who was held in the secret program, where they were held, and what interrogation techniques and conditions of detention they were subjected to.

Some 500 days have passed since the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) confirmed publicly for the first time that the agency had used “water-boarding” against three detainees held in secret custody, and more than 2,000 days have gone by since the CIA Inspector General found that two of the detainees had been subjected to this technique more than 150 times between them.

Again, no one has been brought to justice for authorizing or carrying out this torture or other interrogation methods and detention conditions employed in the CIA program that violated the international prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. This failure flies in the face of an explicit and absolute obligation under international treaties such as the UN Convention against Torture to carry out full investigations into human rights violations and ensure accountability, including specifically by referring for prosecution every case of torture where the accused is not extradited.

The failure – by all branches of the US government – to address these issues under a human rights framework are continuing to leave the USA on the wrong side of its international obligations.

President Obama said in his Nobel Lecture on 10 December 2009, the 61stanniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), “America – in fact, no nation – can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary…” The drafters of the UDHR, he also noted, had recognized that “if human rights are not protected, peace is a hollow promise”. Human rights are the route to security, not the obstacle to it.

Four days later, Secretary Clinton cited President Obama’s speech, asserting that the USA’s values were at one with the principles articulated in the UDHR, but that the gap between the promises of the UDHR and reality meant that “now, we must finish the job”. Six decades ago, she said, “the world’s leaders proclaimed a new framework of rights, laws, and institutions that could fulfill the vow of ‘never again.’ They affirmed the universality of human rights through the Universal Declaration and legal agreements.”

Then, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 1 March 2010, the USA reasserted its commitment “to apply consistently international human rights law to all countries in the world, including ourselves. We seek to lead by example, by meeting our own obligations under both domestic and international law.” About 300 days earlier, in support of its bid for a seat on the Human Rights Council, the USA had committed itself, among other things, to “meeting its UN treaty obligations”.

On almost every front – fair trial of those accused of involvement in attacks on civilians, immediate release of detainees at Guantánamo whom US courts have found to be held without justification, and accountability of US agents for human rights violations and crimes under international law – measures enacted by Congress are only throwing up further obstacles to even the most modest efforts to bring US practices in line with its international obligations.