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Rendition Program to Continue Under Obama's Watch

Nahal Zamani,
Human Rights Program
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August 27, 2009

On Monday, the Obama administration announced that it would continue the Bush administration practice of kidnapping individuals suspected of terrorism to other countries to be detained or interrogated. The Obama administration also announced that the U.S. would establish a system for monitoring their post-rendition treatment, in an attempt to ensure that individuals will not be tortured once they are transferred to other countries.

The administration’s announcement forms part of the Justice Department’s new recommendations on the interrogation and transfer of individuals. The newly revamped rendition program would rely “on assurances from the receiving country” to prevent torture. These so-called “diplomatic assurances” — that is, written guarantees from the receiving state that a person would not be subject to torture or other prohibited treatment upon return — are not a new concept; they were also employed by the Bush administration in the universally condemned “extraordinary rendition program” and proved singularly ineffective in preventing individuals from being tortured after transfer.

Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, Ian Kelly, a U.S. Department of State spokesman, gave further details of the mechanics of the Obama rendition program. Kelly stated that the State Department would “establish a kind of monitoring mechanism that allows us to be able to make sure, after the prisoner has been transferred, that he or she is not being abused.” The practice “puts in place” said Kelly, “a mechanism which we still have to define.” Kelly noted that the Inspector Generals from the Departments of State, Homeland Security and Defense would jointly issue annual reports on how the system is working to ensure its efficacy (only parts of these reports may be unclassified and released to the public).

So far, the only protection against torture that the Obama administration has offered in its recommendations is the receipt of “diplomatic assurances” that torture will not be used. But as Amrit Singh noted in an interview with the New York Times, experience clearly demonstrates that “diplomatic assurances” have “proven completely ineffective in preventing torture.”

Take, for example, the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen and victim of “extraordinary rendition“. Before rendering Arar to Syria, the U.S. government reportedly relied on “assurances” obtained from the Syrian government that Arar would not be tortured. Despite these assurances and visits by consular officials from the Canadian Embassy in Damascus while he was detained, Arar was brutally tortured — a fact proven in the course of a two-year long public inquiry in Canada.

As a party to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, the U.S. is under an absolute obligation not to commit torture or to facilitate its occurrence. By instituting a rendition program that relies on “diplomatic assurances,” the Obama administration is turning its back on U.S. obligations under the U.N. Convention.

A rendition program with “diplomatic assurances” as its centerpiece will be ineffective at preventing torture. We urge the administration to uphold its absolute obligation to prevent torture. Any transfer it engages in must fully comply with domestic and international human rights law, and this precludes transfers based on “diplomatic assurances” in any situation where there is a real risk of torture. Anything less will mark a return to the unlawful “extraordinary rendition” program.

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