It is now two decades since the USA ratified the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT). Over the past decade in particular, regular proclamations from the White House have asserted, in no uncertain terms, the USA’s commitment to this treaty and to leading the global struggle against torture.
The USA’s combined third, fourth and fifth periodic reports to the UN Committee against Torture, due to be reviewed by the Committee in November 2014, open by referencing such statements made by President Barack Obama in 2009 and 2011. The report quotes, for example, his words from 24 June 2011: ￼
“As a nation that played a leading role in the effort to bring this treaty into force, the United States will remain a leader in the effort to end torture around the world and to address the needs of torture victims."
President Obama’s immediate predecessor made similar proclamations, and such statements were cited in the USA’s second periodic report to the Committee against Torture, reviewed in 2006. In 2003, for example, President George W. Bush called on all governments to join the USA in “prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture and in undertaking to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment." In 2004, he promised that the USA would “investigate and prosecute all acts of torture and undertake to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment in all territory under our jurisdiction”. And in 2005, he reaffirmed the USA’s “commitment to the worldwide elimination of torture” and “to building a world where human rights are respected and protected by the rule of law.”
As has long been known, such promises were hollow. Even as President Bush was making them, the USA was resorting, in systematic fashion, in the context of what it was then calling the “war on terror”, to conduct that was entirely contrary to UNCAT. Since leaving office in 2009, the former President has even asserted that he personally authorized the use of “water-boarding” – effectively mock execution by interrupted drowning – and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” against detainees against whom such techniques are known to have been used and who were at the same time being subjected to enforced disappearance in secret US custody at undisclosed locations.
This is a state of affairs that should be highly troubling to anyone seeking the promotion of and compliance with international human rights law and standards. A former president of the USA has asserted on primetime television and in his memoirs that he personally authorized conduct that constituted torture and which his successor and the current US Attorney General agree is torture. Yet no investigation has been carried out into the President’s assertion, or into other assertions published in other memoirs and materials from other former officials who have also claimed leading involvement in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’s programme of enforced disappearance and “enhanced” interrogation using techniques that clearly violated UNCAT’s prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. No one, at any level of office, has been charged or brought to trial for the crimes under international law that are known to have been committed in this program. Many were involved.
While President Obama has recently suggested that “any fair-minded person” would consider that some of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed by the USA constituted torture (while failing to make any reference to criminal accountability),US authorities have yet even to acknowledge that most, if not all, of those held in the CIA secret detention programme were subjected to enforced disappearance, some of them for years.