Never Forget: The International Day in Support of Victims of Torture

Eleven years ago, the United Nations designated June 26 as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
Then-Secretary General Kofi Annan explained, "This is a day on which we
pay our respects to those who have endured the unimaginable. This is an
occasion for the world to speak up against the unspeakable. It is long
overdue that a day be dedicated to remembering and supporting the many
victims and survivors of torture around the world." He added, "June 26
is not a date chosen at random. It was the day, 11 years ago, that the Convention against Torture
came into force. It was also the day, 53 years ago, that the United
Nations Charter was signed - the first international instrument to
embody obligations for Member States to promote and encourage respect
for human rights."
The logo of the ACLU's

As Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, explained in a speech reproduced in today's Daily Star, Lebanon,
"The prohibition of torture is one of the most absolute to be found
anywhere in international law. Article 2 of the Convention against
Torture is unequivocal: 'No exceptional circumstances whatsoever,
whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political
instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a
justification of torture.'"

She continued: "A total of 146 states have ratified the Convention
against Torture (CAT) in the 25 years since it was adopted in 1984 - in
other words, three-quarters of the world's states." However, as she
also explained, "Many states that have ratified CAT continue to
practice torture, some of them daily. Others, which do not practice it
themselves, enable it to happen by sending people at risk back to
states where they know torture is carried out. This, too, is clearly
prohibited by CAT (Article 3)," which states that "No State Party shall
expel, return ('refouler') or extradite a person to another State where
there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger
of being subjected to torture."

The High Commissioner proceeded to explain how "The acts of
terrorism that shook the world on September 11, 2001 had a devastating
impact on the fight to eliminate torture," as "Some states that had
previously been careful not to practice or condone torture became less
scrupulous. State lawyers began to look for ingenious ways to get round
CAT, or stretch its boundaries. The Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prisons,
in particular, became high-profile symbols of this regression, and new
terms such as 'water-boarding' and 'rendition' entered the public
discourse, as human rights lawyers and advocates looked on in dismay."

According to Pillay, the worst excesses of the Bush years may now be
coming to an end. "I believe we are finally starting to turn the page
on this extremely unfortunate chapter of recent history," she
explained, "with counter-terrorism measures starting to move back in to
line with international human rights standards." However, she added
that "Leadership is required to end this grotesque practice. In
January, I welcomed the fact that Barack Obama's very first actions as
the new US president included decisions to close Guantanamo
and ban methods of interrogation, such as water-boarding, which amount
to torture or otherwise contravene international law. He has set an
example of what a leader can do, in terms of policy and practice, to
uphold the total prohibition on torture."

"But," she continued, "there is still much to do before the
Guantanamo chapter is truly brought to a close. Its remaining inmates
must either be tried before a court of law - like any other suspected
criminal - or set free. Those at risk of torture or other ill-treatment
in their countries of origin must be given a new home, where they can
start to build a new life, in the US or elsewhere. I welcome the fact
that in recent weeks a number of countries have agreed to take in a few
people in this position, and urge others to follow suit, including
first and foremost the United States itself."

Addressing President Obama's proposal to push for new legislation endorsing "preventive detention"
- in other words, continuing to imprison people without charge or
trial, on the basis that there is insufficient evidence to try them, or
that the evidence is tainted by the use of torture - the High
Commissioner was rightly indignant. "There should be no half-measures,
or new creative ways to treat people as criminals when they have not
been found guilty of any crime," she said. "Guantanamo showed that
torture and unlawful forms of detention can all too easily creep back
into practice during times of stress, and there is still a long way to
go before the moral high ground lost since September 11 can be fully

Today, sadly, our celebrity-obsessed world is unlikely to pay much
attention to the International Day in Support of the Victims of
Torture, as the death of Michael Jackson
dominates headlines around the world, and the public's tendency to let
the allure of celebrity erase concerns about the moral failings of
stars, and what the cult of celebrity does to people, will be on full
display instead.

Nevertheless, Navi Pillay is to be thanked for raising the issue of
America's moral leadership on this important day, and for
congratulating Barack Obama on making a promising start, but warning
that much more needs to be done. As well as highlighting the terrifying
notion of endorsing "preventive detention," she was, I believe, correct
in stating that "first and foremost" the Obama administration should
take responsibility for the injustices perpetrated by its predecessor,
and should accept cleared prisoners into the United States.

Moreover, as recent events have shown, President Obama also needs to
open up the prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan to some form of
outside scrutiny - and, in a limited number of cases, to the US courts
- and, as a recent court case revealed, he also needs to speed up plans
to release prisoners, and would do well to accompany this with bold
statements renouncing the failures of the Bush administration's "War on
Terror" detention policies.

Inside BagramOn Bagram, the Obama administration has already lost credibility by refusing to accept, as Judge John D. Bates ruled three months ago,
that foreign prisoners - seized outside Afghanistan and rendered to
Bagram, where they have been held for up to seven years - have the same
legal rights as the prisoners in Guantanamo. As Judge Bates explained
in his ruling, the habeas rights granted by the Supreme Court to the
Guantanamo prisoners last June in Boumediene v. Bush
also extend to the foreign prisoners in Bagram, because "the detainees
themselves as well as the rationale for detention are essentially the

This is undoubtedly true, and it is, indeed, little more than an
administrative accident that the foreign prisoners at Bagram - perhaps
around 30 of the total population of 650 - did not end up in
Guantanamo. However, although Judge Bates did not extend rights to
Afghans held in a war zone - who should be treated as prisoners of war,
in accordance with the Geneva Conventions - President Obama needs to
make clear that this is, in fact, what is happening, and that the BBC's recent report
about the abuse suffered by several dozen Afghan prisoners, who were
held at Bagram between 2002 and 2008, refers not to current conditions
at the prison, but to the years when former defense secretary Donald
Rumsfeld sanctioned the use of torture by the US military. Without some
form of transparency, the fear is that the abusive regime initiated by
Rumsfeld is still in existence, and that Obama's fine talk of banning
torture and reinstating is nothing more than hot air.

On Guantanamo, Obama needs to move fast if he is to preserve any
credibility, because the administration's most recent court defeat - in
the case of Abdul Rahim al-Ginco,
a Syrian prisoner - is demonstrably humiliating. On Monday, Judge
Richard Leon (an appointee of George W. Bush) demolished the
government's case, and was clearly incredulous that the government
thought it could establish that al-Ginco had some sort of ongoing
relationship with al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban when, having spent three
weeks in a guest house and training camp in 2000, he was then suspected
of spying, tortured by al-Qaeda for three months, and imprisoned by the
Taliban for a further 18 months, until his "liberation" by US forces,
and his transfer to Guantanamo.

Al-Ginco's case is just the latest in a series of court humiliations
which also revealed that, essentially, Eric Holder's Justice Department
was doing nothing more than attempting to defend the Bush
administration's idiotic detention policies on a case-by-case basis,
pursuing worthless and unjust cases in which its only evidence, as
Judge Gladys Kessler pointed out in another recent ruling, in the case
of a Yemeni, Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed,
consisted of "unreliable allegations made by other prisoners who were
tortured, coerced, bribed or suffering from mental health issues, and a
'mosaic' of intelligence, purporting to rise to the level of evidence,
which actually relied, to an intolerable degree, on second- or
third-hand hearsay, guilt by association and unsupportable

These are not the only issues that President Obama needs to address
urgently. He also needs to think hard about whether it is feasible to
make a stand against torture while refusing to investigate those who authorized its use during the Bush years, and also needs to reflect on the significance of his opposition to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU against Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., a Boeing subsidiary that acted as the CIA's travel agent for torture.

To highlight this issue, I'll shortly be cross-posting an interview
with the wife of Abou Elkassim Britel, one of five prisoners
represented by the ACLU in the Jeppesen case, who is currently
languishing in a Moroccan jail, having been initially picked up in
Pakistan and rendered to Morocco by the CIA.

The interview is part of a two-week project, "Accountability for Torture," that was initiated by the ACLU in the run-up to the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. This has featured a podcast with Glenn Greenwald and Philippe Sands, and articles by several experts on torture including Dr. Stephen Soldz,
who wrote about the American Psychological Association's collusion in
the use of torture. Later today I'll also be posting my own
contribution, an analysis of how the Bush administration's torture
regime included not only the waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" used on so-called "high-value detainees" and the reverse-engineered torture techniques
taught in US military schools, which were implemented throughout the
"War on Terror," in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo, but also the brutal force-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners in Guantanamo, which continues to this day.

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