A Torture Victim Turned Human Rights Champion Ends His U.N. Run Fighting for Justice

This week, internationally renowned Argentinian human rights lawyer and torture survivor Juan Méndez is ending his six extraordinary years as the U.N. special rapporteur on torture.

Méndez has been a fierce advocate against torture worldwide and a close ACLU partner in a wide variety of issue areas, including solitary confinement, the death penalty, gender and LGBT discrimination, accountability for CIA torture, and Guantanamo.

In his final official report, Méndez highlighted the need to adopt a set of universal standards for non-coercive interviewing in various contexts, including by law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies.

ACLU Human Rights Program Director Jamil Dakwar had a chance to ask him some questions about his incredible work (answers have been edited for length and clarity). This Q&A is part one of two.

How would you evaluate your six-year term as the U.N. expert on torture, in terms of combating torture and impunity?

I don’t think we’re even close to being able to say that we are defeating torture or have eradicated it. It’s hard to make that assessment, however, because in all countries, torture fluctuates for different reasons — sometimes it’s used more extensively, and sometimes it’s used less extensively.

What I think has happened, however, mostly in this six-year period, but maybe a little earlier as well and hopefully continuing, is an increased awareness of the need to apply the prism of torture to situations that we don’t commonly associate with torture.

For example, there are forms of imprisonment — like solitary confinement — that undoubtedly are cruel, but that the public does not associate with torture. This also includes the mistreatment of people in settings other than detention or during criminal investigations — for example, in healthcare or social care settings.

I think we are also making inroads in associating the prohibition against torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment with the prohibition on discrimination of all forms. This gives us more awareness of the need to look at the mistreatment of women and girls — and also LGBT persons and other groups whose mistreatment we typically think of as discrimination — under the prism of torture.

Juan Mendez

You called for accountability for CIA and other U.S. government officials responsible for torture in the Bush administration. In your estimation, why has the Obama administration failed so far to conduct comprehensive and independent criminal investigation to hold officials accountable for their actions?

I think the fact that the U.S. refuses to investigate, prosecute, or punish any of those episodes — and in fact puts obstacles in the way of revealing the truth about them by refusing to declassify the full Senate report — is a big drawback. I think it’s a drawback in the sense first and foremost that it creates the impression around the world that torture happens and that it is difficult — perhaps even unwise — to try to put a stop to it. And so it conditions the public and persons with positions of influence around the world to say “well this is inevitable, we have to live with it, and we can live with it.” And also, because the means of enforcement of international law are very weak, and the more powerful countries, like the U.S., get away with non-enforcement, there is an incentive to flaunt obligations by smaller states and even allies of the U.S.

Now officially, when I wrote to the U.S. government on specific cases, they didn’t say they were not and would not investigate instances of torture. It’s typically that they were looking into their options within the legal framework of domestic law in the U.S. I think, however, that in the public domain, statements by the government — including the president himself — about looking forward and not backward, about assuming that CIA officers are deemed categorically to have acted in the belief that their actions were legal because of the so-called torture memos, are unpersuasive.

There cannot be a categorical decision not to look into these matters, because that amounts to an amnesty, and amnesty for torture is a violation of international law. And you cannot invoke domestic law to violate international obligations — that is a clear standard of international law in general. But second, I don’t think it’s appropriate to say that the torture memos were illegal but constitute a basis for defense, much less to not even look at the actions themselves, given that some of the actions may have exceeded what even the torture memos seem to have authorized.

What are your plans for after you finish out your term? Would you be interested in pursuing any particular issues that you’ve focused on during your tenure?

Well, in terms of my plans generally, I’ve made a decision to stay in the field because I’ve been working on torture since before I became the special rapporteur and I intend to continue. I also intend to cooperate with my successor and with the treaty bodies and instruments that the U.N. and regional organizations have to fight against torture as much as I can.

I expect, as an academic but also as an advocate generally, to join the many organizations and individuals who are campaigning against torture around the world and to be of some service to the common cause of seeing torture eradicated if not in my lifetime, at least in the lifetime of someone who’s alive today.

With regard to specific areas of involvement that I’m interested in, some include the issues that we’ve been discussing, specifically solitary confinement, the death penalty, torture in healthcare, and others. But I am also interested in other areas, for example a better way of enforcing the exclusionary rule to forbid the consideration of evidence obtained by torture and the obligation to investigate, prosecute, and punish all instances of torture. I would also like to focus on the use of forensics to detect torture and to offer better rehabilitation services for torture. In all of these areas, I expect to contribute my efforts.

I am also particularly interested in following-up on my last thematic report to the General Assembly. This report elaborates on the legal, ethical, scientific, and practical arguments against the use of torture, other ill-treatment, and of coercive methods during questioning of persons in different investigative contexts.

In the report, I call for the development of a Universal Protocol for Investigative Interviewing and Attendant Legal Safeguards, which would identify a set of standards for non-coercive interviewing methods and procedural safeguards that should, as a matter of law, policy, and practice, be applied at a minimum to all interviews by law enforcement officials, military, and intelligence personnel. It would promote effective, ethical, and non-coercive interviewing centred on the presumption of innocence and the pursuit of truth.  

I hope that torture victims have been empowered and encouraged to participate in the enforcement of international law standards by insisting on reparations and rehabilitation, but also participation in investigations and truth-telling. A majority are drawn from the more vulnerable segments of society and suffered torture precisely because they have been disempowered. I hope they have a growing sense of participation in preventing torture for others in the near future.

Read part two of the interview

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First, thank you for real heroes like Juan Mendez. In the United States, financial gain, by government agencies and private industry seems to be the primary driver of torture and CoinTelPro style blacklisting.

The federal government has financially "deputized" state and local agencies using federal "Preemption & Prevention Grants". During the Jim Crow era, the federal government was largely a defender of civil rights. Today the federal government drives civil rights violations and wipes out checks & balances by deputizing state and local governments.

Based on circumstantial evidence, it appears that local and state governments took blacklisted individuals from several decades prior to 9/11 and then placed those innocent citizens on 9/11 blacklists - having absolutely nothing to do with crime or terrorism. Since the local and state agencies are cashing in on federal grants they simply look the other way to the illegality of the federal grants.

The ACLU could make huge gains on torture and blacklisting by persuading the U.S. Supreme Court to provide Judicial Review and overturn federal "Preemtion & Prevention Grants" as unconstitutional. End the federal gravy train of grants and the ACLU will end most torture and cruel treatment of innocent Americans.

Laura Stone

Thank you. This is my hope also.

Michael Cain

C.I.A. covert operatives exposed by the N.S.A. contractor Harold T. Martin III
Kidnapping and torture of people on the ground of their alleged participation in terrorist activities is the practice commonly used by the C.I.A. We believe the international community has the right to know the names of the U.S. secret agents who are personally responsible for illegally punishing the people the United States deems undesirable all around the world. Former N.S.A. contractor Harold T. Martin III stole classified documents that contained the following information.
The list of CIA officers and recruited informants who participated in organizing the kidnapping and torture of people suspected of terrorist activity
Rodney Guy Smith, Chief of CIA Special Activities Division 2003-2006, now executive for Abraxas
Alejandro D. Martinez, ("Duece Martinez"), analyst, out of CIA
Robert Bickle CIA interrogator during 2000s, unknown status now
Robert Kandara chief of CIA High Value Detainee program during 2003 to at least 2004
John Bevan, CIA officer, deputy in High Value Detainee Program, still active in CIA as of 2009
Thomas Fletcher, CIA officer in HVD program, status now not known
Alan Jorsey pilot for CIA during 2000s
Alfreda Bukoski (portrayed in Zero Dark 30), HVD program senior official, believed to still be active
Jose Rodriguez, 2004-2007 CIA directory director of operations and Director of National Clandestine Services, now retired
Gina Haspel, CIA station chief for London as of 2009, former HVD
Bruce Jessen CIA contractor, advised CIA on interrogation
Frank (Francisco) Chap, CIA reporters officer in HVD, posted to NSA as of 2009
Michael K. Winograd, CIA station chief, Bangkok, 2002-2005; has or had physical possession of interrogation tapes
James E. Mitchell CIA contractor formally with military's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, now private contractor with - - Bruce Jessen, interrogation advisor, involved in decision to destroy video tapes
Michael D'Andrea chief of operations in the CIA CTC, 2002; later station chief, Cairo.
Robert Grenier, CIA chief of station, Pakistan 1999-2002, director of CTC 2004-2006, now retired from CIA, working at Kroll, Wash DC as of 2009
Kirk Hubbard CIA psychologist, interrogation advisor, 2000s
Carol S. Rosenblum CIA psychologist, interrogation advisor
Richard Blee, chief of station Pakistan 2002-2004, later chief of station postings, now private consultant, involved in HVD interrogation program

Martin (Marty) Martin, senior officer 2000-2005, later chief of station, Cairo, involved in interrogation program
Robert Dannenberg, chief of Central Eurasia Division 2004 to 2006, including Romania, Poland and other European countries, involved in many aspects of CIA's Special Activities Division, CTC, and HVD
Robert Richer, CIA Associate Director for Operations (ADDO) until late 2005; 2002-2004 Chief of the Near East and South Asia Division, involved in renditions program
CIA Atttomies: John Radsen, Jonathan Fredman, John Rizzo, Robert Eatinger, Paul Kelbaugh, Robert Monahan, Steven W. Hermes involved in renditions/torture/HVD program
James Pavit, CIA deputy Director for operations 1999-2004, involved in many aspects of detention and interrogation
John Sano, chief of East Asia Division 2005, deputy dir National Clandestine Service 2005-2007, now retired
Jami Miscik Deputy Dir for Intelligence 2002-2004, now retired, involved in Special Activities Division
Scott White Associate Deputy dir for intelligence 2002-2004, dir for support 2006-2008, CIA associate deputy dir as of 2009 replacing Michael Morell position.
Ronald Czametsky, chief of station Poland 2002-2005, CIA chief of station Moscow as of 2009.
Paul Zalucky, chief of station Poland 2005-2007
Larry Seals chief of CIA Air Branch 2001-2004, chief of rendition program 2004 to unknown date
Scott D. Wever officer in CIA Air Branch at various points in 2001 to 2004, employed by CIA contractor CSC 2004-2005, re-hired by CIA 2006-2007 to work in renditions program
William L. Ballhaus CEO DynCorp International, contractor to CIA renditions program 2002-2005
Stephen Lee program manager at CSC/Dyncorp 2001-2005 for renditions program
Willian Vigil CSC/Dyncorp program manager involved with CIA contracting operations, handled CIA contracted aviation operations from 2005-2007, later in 2007 transfer to McNeil Security another CIA contractor involved with flint operations
Lawrence Dan Engelhaupt CSC/Dyncorp director involved with CIA contracting operations 2002-2007, also transfer to McNeil 2007
Steve Dugre CSC/Dyncorp program manager involved with CIA contracting ops from 2001 to 2007, also transfer to McNeil 2007
Michael Edward Anderson, pilot, Aero Contractors of North Carolina, pilot for CIA operators aircraft N379P, N313P, flew CIA missions to Afghanistan, Morocco, Poland blacksite

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