Inauguration Bleachers

From the Archive

WAT Torture Abolition and Accountability Platform

Torture is always and in every sense wrong. It is a violation of human rights; a breach of domestic laws and international conventions; a sin to all faiths; a moral outrage; a profound abuse of the body, the psyche and the soul; and an enduring trauma that can destroy individuals, families, and whole communities.

Witness Against Torture calls for the total abolition of torture throughout the world. We demand, in particular, that the United States fully repudiate torture, which became a systematic state practice following September 11, 2001. We sharply denounce the pro-torture candidacy of Republican nominee Donald Trump. Trump’s call to “bring back” plainly illegal torture techniques like waterboarding should alone disqualify him from consideration for the presidency. However, both Republican and Democratic administrations and politicians have been complicit in torture policies over the last 15 years. All lawmakers and candidates have an obligation to relegate torture to the US past.

Repudiating torture entails, most immediately: the rapid closure of the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; apologies, monetary payments, and other restitution to the post-9-11 victims of torture, as required under the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT); the unequivocal disavowal of torture by all presidential and congressional candidates, all elected representatives, and leaders of the US military and intelligence agencies; and meaningful, legal accountability for those who designed, authorized, and carried out torture policies.

Varieties of Torture

Torture may be committed by militaries, police, other state security forces, insurgents, or terrorists. It may be used as a means of interrogation of captives in war and other conflicts or in campaigns of state repression to control and terrorize people. It may seek “information,” coerced “confessions,” or simply to brutalize its victims. It may be applied with obvious sadism or clinical precision. It may even follow protocols developed by lawyers, policymakers, and psychologists — and overseen by medical observers — so as to evade the law and blunt public concern.

Torture may be physical or psychological in nature. It may be a secret, rogue operation, or have the blessing of elected officials and voices in the media and popular culture. It may be used against perceived enemies in military operations; to punish dissidents so that others remain silent; to break the protests of detained men, such as in the forced-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay; or as a standard procedure in detention regimes, such as extended solitary confinement in US prisons and jails.

No matter the means and circumstances, potential sanction by the state, the justifications offered, and the promise to the torturers of immunity, torture always remains criminal and wrong. Torture has permanent debilitating effects on its victims, its perpetrators, and on the population of others who might be tortured.

US Torture Before and After 9-11

The United States has long been an outspoken defender of human rights and the rule of law. But the country also has a long history of practicing, sponsoring, and training others in torture. Waterboarding mirrors a similar technique given the ironic name “the water cure” by US soldiers, who used it in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. US military and intelligence personnel used torture during the Vietnam War, notably in the interrogation and assassination program “Operation Phoenix.” In the 1970s and 1980s, the United States instructed Latin America security forces in the use of torture and other terror tactics against civilians. The CIA even paid millions of dollars for academic research into torture, collected in its 1963 “KUBARK” manual, which details how to apply specific torture techniques. That manual was reissued in 1983, and used by U.S.-supported forces in Central America. Torture, in sum, is part of the United States’ modern imperial history. Directed at South Asian, Latin American, and now Muslim peoples (from many regions), it is also an expression of US racism.

In the aftermath of 9-11, the United States fully committed to a program of state torture, validated by Department of Justice (DoJ) attorneys and approved by the country’s highest elected officials, including President Bush. Dozens or even hundreds of men were tortured by the CIA in its “enhanced interrogation” program. That torture took place in “black sites” in such countries as Afghanistan, Poland and Thailand. Other victims were “rendered” to countries like Syria and Egypt for torture on behalf of US officials.

Many hundreds or thousands more people were tortured by the United States in its conduct of the so-called “war on terror” and its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This includes the great majority of the nearly 800 men brought to Guantanamo, tortured at various sites (including Guantanamo itself); men brutalized in prisons in Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Base and other facilities; and captives abused by uniformed, US military and civilian contractors in multiple theatres of conflict. Indeed, the US abuse of detainees has been rampant in post-9-11 wars and security operations.

That the United States committed widespread torture after 2001 has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt. In late 2014, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released the “Findings and Conclusions” and a 500-page executive summary of its 6,700-page Study on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. Using the CIA’s own documents, it chronicles the origins and evolution of the CIA torture program, concluding that it plainly violated US laws. The report also refutes persisting claims that torture yielded valuable, actionable intelligence.

In 2013 the non-partisan Constitution Project issued the report of its Task Force on Detainee Treatment. It identified “indisputable” breeches of US laws and international treaties based on the detailed reading of specific laws against documented US conduct. Journalists, academic researchers, attorneys and filmmakers have rigorously exposed post-9-11 torture. (Notable works include Alfred McCoy, A Question of Torture; Jane Mayer, The Dark Side; the ACLU and Larry Siems, et. al., The Torture Report; Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, Outside the Law, and Rebecca Gordon, Mainstreaming Torture.) Finally, international human rights bodies like Amnesty International, the UN Committee against Torture, and the International Committee of the Red Cross have also documented and condemned US torture.

Continued denials by some politicians, military and intelligence officials, and media voices that the United States committed torture — or their contradictory insistence that torture produced key intelligence — have no bearing on the reality of US conduct.

US Torture and the Law

Torture is illegal under US federal law and international treaties to which the United States is a signatory, and therefore have the force of law. The 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture defines torture as “an act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him . . . information, punishing him. . . or intimidating or coercing him.”

Based on the Convention, US criminal statute 2340 declares torture, “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” Other federal statutes and international conventions, such as the War Crimes Act and the Geneva Conventions, outlaw the torture and other abuse of detainees.

The long-rescinded “torture memos” of Department of Justice lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee, which sought to define torture out of existence, have no meaning with respect to the understanding and application of anti-torture laws and treaties.

The United States — as asserted in the Senate Torture Report and by the Constitution Project — violated the above laws and treaties in its treatment of post-9-11 detainees. President Obama himself admitted in August 2014, “We tortured some folks.”

Torture Abolition and Accountability – Platform Positions

 There exists no precedent in US history of state torture on the scale since 9-11. So too, there is no direct precedent for how to reckon with this history, nor agreement among legal and human rights advocates as to the best way forward, especially given current political and legislative constraints and pressures, and the balance between short and long term goals. Below we offer broad imperatives, specific demands and recommendations, and options for their implementation.

Close the Guantanamo Prison

The US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay is both a primary site and enduring symbol of post-9-11 US torture. The prison must close immediately. Its closure should entail:

  • The immediate repatriation or re-settlement of all remaining detained men who are not under indictment for serious crimes. Repatriation to Yemen should be an option for Yemeni nationals. All detained men, simply put, should be fairly tried or released.
  • An end to the unjust and unworkable Military Commissions. Those prisoners currently on trial, or awaiting trial, before Military Commissions should be transferred into competent, civilian courts or international courts under international sovereignty. All evidence regarding allegations made against them, and all pertinent documentation regarding treatment of defendants while under government custody, must be made available to defendants and their counsel. Any evidence obtained under torture is inadmissible under law. If valid evidence is insufficient to prosecute, the charges must be dropped and the defendants must be released.
  • The revocation of the current legislative ban on the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States.
  • The establishment of a fair and well-managed process for all formerly detained men to swiftly secure damages for their unjust detention and abuse.
  • The removal of all onerous bans on the travel of formerly detained men to the United States, so that they may address US media and participate in various forums seeking accountability.
  • The disbursement of substantial US monetary and other resources to aid the resettlement and well-being of formerly detained men.
  • The initiation of serious negotiations with the sovereign state of Cuba to return the entire US Naval base at Guantanamo to the Cuban state and people. It is an unpardonable indignity that the United States committed torture on Cuban soil, in a facility that by treaty was only ever to be used for the refueling of naval vessels.

End Indefinite Detention

President Bush asserted, and President Obama formally claimed by Executive Order, the right to detain captives indefinitely without charge or trial. This is illegal and wrong. We call for:

  • The immediate and absolute renunciation of indefinite detention without charge, which has no place in a democratic order and our Constitutional system of law.

End Government Secrecy

A full and unsparing record of US torture, based on government documents and internal government investigations, must be made public (with reasonable measures to protect potentially sensitive information). The full Senate Torture Report should be released immediately, along with any and all other investigations by US military and civilian agencies into the US treatment of detainees.

Ensure Accountability for Torture

Torture policies were devised or condoned by our highest elected officials and their staffs, including the President and Vice President, and leading cabinet heads, notably the Secretary of Defense. Torture was carried out by US intelligence officials, civilian contractors, and uniformed US military. It was sometimes assisted by professionals in the fields of medicine and psychology. (The American Psychological Association has since taken a position prohibiting its members from participating in these interrogations.)

And yet almost no one — whether they concocted, facilitated, or executed torture policies — has ever been held to legal account for their treatment of detainees. Shortly after becoming Attorney General in 2009, Eric Holder announced that the DoJ would not pursue criminal investigations of US intelligence and military personnel operating under the aegis of since-discredited DoJ memos that essentially authorized torture. This was an unconscionable whitewash of criminal activity, as it both effectively immunized torture and accepted the power of the Executive to unilaterally rewrite laws to its liking.

Without accountability for torture, the rule of law and the US justice system stand shattered. The law, moreover, is removed as a deterrent to current and future torturers.

The People’s Convention seeks meaningful legal and other forms of accountability for US torture. We are motivate not by a desire for punishment but rather the desire for justice for survivors of torture and assurance that the United States will never again torture anyone in its custody. We therefore demand:

  • That US Justice Department discontinue invoking states’ secrets, executive privilege, and other nation security grounds to stop lawsuits from victims of US torture, rendition, and other abuse against individuals in the US government, government agencies, and private companies. Victims of US policies and practices should have their day in criminal and civil courts.
  • That the US Department of Justice scrutinize the entirety of the Senate Torture Report to determine the existence of evidence of indictable crimes. Should such evidence exist, DoJ should bring appropriate indictments against CIA and other personnel.
  • That the US government honor its obligation under the UN Convention Against Torture to seriously investigate alleged violations of the Convention by its citizens and agencies of the government itself.
  • That all branches of the US government, working with human rights bodies, journalists, legal advocates, religious figures, and torture victims, devise a comprehensive legal process to investigate and, when warranted, prosecute all those who criminally participated, or were criminally complicit, in torture. These investigations should not regard rank, title, or position in the US government in determining eligibility for prosecution. Such a process could be directed by a special prosecutor, exist within conventional courts, or in an international forum.
  • That the United States sign and ratify the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, which would allow US citizens to be tried for war crimes in an internationally-recognized venue.

Strengthen Anti-Torture Provisions

 As indicated, US and international law already prohibits torture and the cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of detainees. Nonetheless, existing laws can be strengthened. We therefore insist that:

  • Congress pass legislation making torture a federal crime inside the United States, and not only outside the United States (as currently stipulated in Section 2340 of the federal criminal code).
  • The US government US Army Field Manual on Interrogations be amended so as to a) eliminate appendixes that permit abusive treatment and b) explicitly prohibit stress positions and abnormal sleep manipulation.
  • The United States work with the international community to amend the Convention Against Torture so as to explicitly describe and prohibit all forms of psychological torture.
  • The US government proactively challenge all nations — especially its allies — that torture their own or other citizens to cease this practice.
  • The US grant asylum to additional survivors who have fled their countries after being brutally tortured.

Expand the Recognition of Torture and Cruel, Inhumane, and Degrading Treatment

 The torture techniques used on detainees in the so-called “war on terror” have shocked the conscience of the world. But cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of prisoners is routine with the US penal system. In particular, the extended use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails — including against minors — has been denounced by credible human rights and medical bodies as itself a form of torture. Organizations such as Amnesty International have also decried the widespread institutional tolerance of rape in U.S. prisons. The People’s Convention therefore calls for the abolition of extended solitary confinement in any and all US detention facilities and urges that other harsh and controversial penal practices be challenged in their morality, legality, and consequences.

– Witness Against Torture




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