The Obama administration indicated on Wednesday that it will back away from a position held by the previous administration that claimed the United States is not obligated to abide by the UN Treaty Against Torture when operating on foreign soil. That's the good news.
In comments made before the UN Committee Against Torture during hearings that began in Geneva today, acting U.S. legal advisor Mary McLeod told the panel, "The US is proud of its record as a leader in respecting, promoting and defending human rights and the rule of law, both at home and around the world."
"The administration’s definition still appears to exclude places like the former “black site” prisons where the C.I.A. tortured terrorism suspects during the Bush years, as well as American military detention camps in Afghanistan and Iraq during the wars there."
Keith Harper, U.S. ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, who also testified before the told the committee, stated, "We recognize that no nation is perfect, ours included."
More specifically, McCleod added that "in the wake of 9/11 attacks" the United States "did not always live up to our own values. We crossed the line and we take responsibility for that."
However, ahead of the two-day hearings, a position paper released by Obama's National Security Council seemed to indicate that so-called "black sites" run by the CIA as well as current and former detention facilities established in Afghanistan and Iraq during the Bush years would not fall under the jurisdiction of the treaty.
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As the New York Times explains:
Most of the torture treaty contains no geographic limitations. But its ban on “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” that falls short of torture is one of several provisions that apply to a state’s conduct “in any territory under its jurisdiction.” That phrase is ambiguous, and the administration of President George W. Bush took the view that the ban did not apply beyond domestic soil.
The Obama administration, after an internal debate that has drawn global scrutiny, is taking the view that the cruelty ban applies wherever the United States exercises governmental authority, according to officials familiar with the deliberations. That definition, they said, includes the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and American-flagged ships and aircraft in international waters and airspace.
But the administration’s definition still appears to exclude places like the former "black site" prisons where the C.I.A. tortured terrorism suspects during the Bush years, as well as American military detention camps in Afghanistan and Iraq during the wars there. Those prisons were on the sovereign territory of other governments; the government of Cuba exercises no control over Guantánamo.
Watch a live-stream of the hearings in Geneva here.
According to the official statement released by the NSC:
During the course of the two-day review, the U.S. delegation will underscore that all U.S. personnel are legally prohibited under international and domestic law from engaging in torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment at all times, and in all places. There are no gaps, either in the legal prohibitions against these acts by U.S. personnel, or in the United States’ commitment to the values enshrined in the Convention, and the United States pledges to continue working with our partners in the international community toward the achievement of the Convention’s ultimate objective: a world without torture.
As the hearing got underway in Geneva, Agence France-Presse reported:
The delegation faced a barrage of questions from committee members on how the country was dealing with rectifying and providing redress for acknowledged abuses during the "war on terror".
The US delegation was asked to explain why the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba remains open, why many detainees remain there without charge and when Washington plans to shut it down.
The committee members also questioned the treatment of prisoners there, and lack of redress for victims of the widely publicised abuses by US troops at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in the early 2000s.
Beyond the "war on terror" legacy, the committee members raised issues of abuses in US prisons, rape in prisons, the broad use of drawn-out solitary confinement, and long years on death row.
And they asked how Washington could justify its widespread detention of non-violent, non-criminal illegal immigrants, including minors.
And they slammed police brutality that appears to disproportionately affect minorities, such as 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri last August.
On Tuesday, ahead of the hearings, The Guardian's Spencer Ackerman reported on how five Libyan men—who were detained by the CIA and claim they were tortured in multiple locations over more than two years in captivity—say they were never interviewed by a Justice Department investigative team, headed by assistant U.S. attorney John Durham, that was charged with looking into the torture practices that took place during the Bush years.
... the Libyans say that neither Durham nor his staff "ever sought or requested our testimony."
The five – Mohammed Ahmed Mohammed al-Shoroeiya, Khalid al-Sharif, Majid Mokhtar Sasy al-Maghrebi, Saleh Hadiyah Abu Abdullah Di’iki and Mustafa Jawda al-Mehdi – wrote to committee secretary Patrice Gillibert in a 9 November letter urging Gillibert press the US delegation on the investigative omission.
All members of the now-defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an anti-Gaddafi terrorist group with murky ties to al-Qaida, the five spent between eight months and two years in CIA custody before being rendered back to Muammar Gaddafi’s prisons. One of them, Shoroeiya, alleges that the CIA waterboarded him in Afghanistan, although he is not one of the three people on whom the CIA has acknowledged using the controversial mock-drowning technique.
Among other torture techniques, they say, their US captors chained them to walls after stripping them naked; blasted deafeningly loud music at them; kept them deprived of sleep for sustained periods and shackled them in painful positions. Sharif told Human Rights Watch that he yelled at his guards: "I want to die, why don’t you just kill me?"
Durham’s apparent disinterest in interviewing them "raises serious questions about the thoroughness and adequacy of the Durham investigation, whether other important witnesses were also not interviewed for that inquiry, and whether the US has complied with obligations under article 12" of the UN convention against torture, they wrote.