Activists Seek Executive Order Banning Torture
NEW YORK - Shutting down the
infamous detention centre at Guantanamo Bay is just one of a series of
measures to reform U.S. counterterrorism practices being urged by the
watchdog organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In a report
released Sunday, the New York-based HRW urged President-elect Barack
Obama to quickly repudiate the abusive policies put in place by the
George W. Bush administration in its "global war on terror".
"The Obama administration is going to have a difficult task to restore
America's standing in the world," Joanne Mariner, terrorism and
counterterrorism programme director at HRW, told IPS. "The Bush
administration's counterterrorism policies deeply damaged the
reputation of the United States."
HRW's 11-step action plan -- entitled "Fighting Terrorism
Fairly and Effectively: Recommendations for President-elect Obama" --
suggests how the U.S. could again become a credible leader in the fight
for the global implementation of human rights.
"But it depends on how dramatically the Obama administration makes a clear break with the past," Mariner added.
According to HRW, some 250 terrorist suspects are still being held as
"enemy combatants" at the military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay
opened in 2002. Most of the detainees have now been in custody for
nearly seven years, without charge.
As president, Obama should close the detention facility -- a step he
has already pledged to take -- and establish a task force to review all
the detainees' cases to determine whether they should be charged and
brought to trial or released.
Also among the 11 steps is the abolition of military
commissions to try suspected foreign terrorists. HRW argues that these
commissions lack "basic fair trial guarantees" and that federal
criminal courts were the "best-equipped" and "time tested" venues to
handle terrorism cases.
Similarly, plans to legalise the indefinite preventive detention of
suspected terrorists - based on "predictions of future dangerousness"
-- should be rejected by Obama, HRW says.
Justifying detention without charge by classifying people as
"enemy combatants" in the "war on terror", as has happened to suspects
arrested in locations like Bosnia, Thailand and along the U.S.-Mexico
border, should also be stopped.
HRW also condemned the use of torture and inhumane
interrogation techniques by U.S. armed forces and intelligence agencies
-- "including stripping detainees naked, subjecting them to extremes of
heat, cold, and noise, and depriving them of sleep for long periods".
To ban these practices, which have led to the deaths of some
detainees, Obama should quickly issue an executive order and repudiate
legal memos issued by the Bush Justice Department and presidential
directives under the outgoing administration that permit torture and
HRW called on the new administration to redress victims of
abusive counterterrorism policies -- something which has not happened
so far as the victims have effectively been shut out of U.S. courts.
Above all, past abuses should be investigated, documented and publicly
reported by a non-partisan commission with subpoena power, and former
government officials who were responsible for some of the crimes should
not be given immunity from prosecution, the group said.
Last week, Rep. Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey who
chairs an intelligence oversight panel, issued a statement saying that
"while an executive order [to ban torture] will not remove the need for
legislation on the issue," if Obama did so, it would "begin to restore
our moral leadership on the issue".
Holt also expressed support for the National Religious
Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), a coalition of religious groups from
all over the country that is lobbying to eliminate the use of torture
as a part of U.S. policy.
On Nov. 12, NRCAT held a nationwide action day with more than
50 delegations of religious leaders holding meetings with members of
Congress. Thirty religious groups participated in a demonstration in
front of the White House, where President Bush is spending his final
days in office.
While she agreed on the need to fight terrorism, Mariner of
HRW rejected many of the measures taken after the 9/11 terror attacks,
emphasising that "the Bush administration entirely disregarded even
basic principles of the rule of law."
"The government addressed terrorism in an extremely counterproductive way," Mariner said.
Instead of diminishing the terrorist threat, reports of human
rights violations at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and
elsewhere fuelled the recruitment of supporters for militant groups,
which argued the U.S. was in fact leading a "war on Islam".
Asked whether she believes Obama will heed the recommendations
of HRW, Mariner stressed that by voting against the Military
Commissions Act of 2006 to authorise trials by military courts, "Obama
has already stood up against these abuses."
The president-elect also explicitly pledged to close Guantanamo during his campaign.
"So we are confident that consistent with his message of change, his
actions and his criticism, he is going to repudiate the abusive
counterterrorism policies of the Bush administration," Mariner said.