BOSTON, MA -- January 27 -- Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) announced today its opposition to the confirmation of White House Legal Counsel Alberto Gonzales|
to be Attorney General of the United States. As the top legal officer of the nation, the Attorney General has the responsibility to assure that all agencies of government prevent torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Mr. Gonzales has not acknowledged the widespread use of torture by US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo and elsewhere. His record, along with the statements he made at his confirmation hearings, demonstrate that he is unwilling to make a commitment to assure that torture is not used in the interrogation of detainees.
No country can call itself dedicated to protecting and promoting the dignity of human beings if its highest legal officer equivocates or hedges on a commitment to prevent torture, said Leonard S. Rubenstein, PHRs executive director. The American people deserve an Attorney General who is devoted to this most cherished human right.
Physicians for Human Rights has never before opposed a nominee for public office in the United States and doing so represents an extraordinary step for the organization, requiring a two-thirds vote of its board of directors. In this case, the organizations extensive experience in documenting and seeking to prevent torture makes opposition to the Gonzales nomination an imperative.
Mr. Gonzales should have been forthright in explaining how as Attorney General he would take action to stop future use of torture, especially in view of his prior involvement in subverting the Geneva Conventions and other international agreements, his participation in the 2002 memorandum that permitted torture both explicitly and through a strained interpretation of law that excluded egregious abuse from the definition of torture and in view of the horrific evidence of torture inflicted by US forces during the past three years. Instead, at his confirmation hearing, Mr. Gonzales provided no such assurances. He offered generalities and evaded all questions asking him to articulate how he would seek to prevent torture through actions and interpretations of law.
In fact, Mr. Gonzales played a leadership role in creating policies that led to torture and ill treatment and evading responsibilities under international human rights and humanitarian law. In January 2002, against the warning of Secretary of State Colin Powell and others, he drafted a memorandum to President Bush that denied wholesale the protection of the Geneva Conventions to al Qaeda and Taliban detainees without any of the case-by-case review the Conventions require to make such a determination. He also participated in decisions to deny any form of independent review of the detention of these individuals, a decision later held by the Supreme Court to violate the Constitution.
In the summer of 2002, Mr. Gonzales solicited a legal opinion from the Justice Department regarding the use of torture. That memo asserted the Presidents right to order the torture of detainees, a position that violates domestic law and US treaty obligations under the Convention against Torture and other international agreements.
The Justice Department 2002 opinion also defined torture so narrowly as to exclude all but treatment equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death, opening the door to the use of a wide range of techniques that have long been considered methods of torture. The record of subsequent action by the Defense Department shows that the memorandum was used to justify acts that, under any acceptable definition, would amount to torture.
During his confirmation hearings on January 6, 2005, Mr. Gonzales was repeatedly invited by Senators from both parties to distance himself from these views, clarify his role in the process, and accept accountability for the abuses that occurred. Mr. Gonzales declined to do so, instead offering lip service to the prohibition against torture while at the same time offering evasive and equivocal answers that indicated his unwillingness to be bound by that prohibition.
When asked whether US personnel can legally engage in torture under any circumstances, Mr. Gonzales replied, I dont believe so, but Id want to get back to you on that. He also refused to reject the reasoning of the August 2002 Justice Department opinion, stating that he did not have a disagreement with the conclusions then reached by the department. This is shocking, considering that the Justice Department itself recently repudiated this aspect of the opinion.
Equally troubling, when asked whether he believes the President can order torture despite international and domestic law prohibiting its use, Mr. Gonzales refused to answer. When pressed, he offered an evasive response, saying that there may come an occasion when the Congress might pass a statute that the President may view as unconstitutional.
Finally, Mr. Gonzales did not even acknowledge the scope of the use of torture by US forces and the need for leadership by the Attorney General to end it. He did not affirm that clear guidance on interrogations consistent with obligations under international treaties and US laws is still needed. Despite the voluminous record now demonstrating the extensive use of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, he treated the problem as an aberration limited to a few soldiers at Abu Ghraib. He cast doubt on the legitimacy of repeated concerns raised by the FBI about abusive interrogation practices carried out at Guantánamo. A nominee for Attorney General who refuses to acknowledge the existence of illegal, abhorrent conduct cannot inspire any confidence that he will deal appropriately with this problem when in office.
As Attorney General, Mr. Gonzales would be obligated to take aggressive steps to stop torture, including repudiating aspects of the December 30, 2004 Office of Legal Counsel memorandum that continue to permit psychological torture. Yet he gave no indication that he would seek any change in practices that have led to such torture and ill treatment.
Based on his record and his responses at the hearing, Physicians for Human Rights believes that Mr. Gonzales lacks the commitment to human rights and the rule of law needed to stop torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. His confirmation would risk maintaining a climate of uncertainty and permissiveness among military, civilian, and intelligence officials who detain and interrogate foreign prisoners and who send detainees to other countries to be interrogated and tortured.
Torture by US forces will continue until there is an airtight policy prohibiting its use. By failing to offer the slightest hint of support for such a policy, let alone a commitment to implementing one, Mr. Gonzales has proven that he is unfit to serve as the nations top law enforcement officer, said Rubenstein.
Founded in 1986, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) mobilizes the health professions to promote health by protecting human rights. As a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, PHR shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.