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The U.S. Must Honor Its International Commitment Against Torture

Nahal Zamani,
Human Rights Program
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June 26, 2009

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

Today marks the anniversary of the day that the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) came into effect. CAT is an international human rights treaty dealing exclusively with torture and other forms of cruel and inhuman treatment. Countries that have signed CAT are obligated to prohibit and prevent torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment. Governments are also required to investigate all allegations of torture, to hold perpetrators accountable and provide meaningful remedies to victims of such practices. (Learn more about the nuances between “torture” and “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” in this video with ACLU Human Rights Program Director Jamil Dakwar).

So what does that mean for us in the States? The U.S. ratified CAT in October 1994. By ratifying CAT, the U.S. is therefore obligated to comply with the provisions of the treaty just as it would any other domestic law — the U.S. Constitution makes clear that such treaties are “the Supreme law of the Land.” Although the Bush administration tried to convince the American people and the rest of the world otherwise, CAT applies to all U.S. actions and wherever the U.S. exercises effective control — both at home and abroad. That means, CAT applies to the actions of U.S. officials at U.S.-run detention facilities, including Guantánamo, and other U.S. detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. As one of the countries that helped write CAT and as a signatory to the torture treaty, it is the United States’ obligation to ensure that no one is subject to torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment on our watch.

So how do we ensure that the U.S. upholds its obligations under the treaty? The actual “implementation” of CAT is overseen by the Committee against Torture. This Committee is a U.N.-based body of independent human rights experts that reviews countries that have ratified the treaty and ensures that these countries comply with treaty obligations.

The Committee requires countries, including the U.S., to submit periodic reports detailing their compliance to the treaty. Most recently, the United States submitted a report about compliance under the CAT treaty in May 2005. Based on their review of the U.S.’ report, as well as shadow reports issued by the organizations like the ACLU, the Committee posed questions about the U.S. government fulfillment of treaty obligations before a delegation of government representatives. In July 2006, the committee issued its conclusions, and while these recommendations are not legally binding, they are recognized around the world as an important moral obligation on governments to comply with treaty commitments before the nations of the world.

In its Conclusions and Recommendations, the Committee identified several areas of improvement for the U.S. to concentrate their efforts on. These included, but were not limited to:

It is clear today — on the 22nd anniversary of CAT, and the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture — that the government of the United States has much to do to fully address these areas of concern and to comply with CAT. Although those U.S. officials responsible for authorizing and implementing the torture program would have you believe otherwise, the U.S. government must investigate all allegations of torture, hold accountable those responsible and provide meaningful remedies to the program’s many victims.

CAT requires no less.

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