I’m in Geneva at the twice-yearly session of the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture. Five years ago, such a trip would have seemed exotic and outside the ACLU’s mandate, but now it is necessary and routine. High-level U.S. officials authorized the torture and abuse of hundreds, probably thousands, of people detained in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo … and the devil only knows where else. Despite widespread evidence that links our government’s torture policies all the way up the chain of command, not a single senior military or civilian official has yet to be held accountable. Congress has yet to authorize any independent investigation into the abuses, and the military’s own investigations have largely been whitewashes that resulted in slight hand-slaps to low-level soldiers. The White House and DOD continue to promote the primary perpetrators of the torture policies.
To counteract this sorry state of affairs, the ACLU – along with many other U.S. based human rights groups — is using every tool and every forum available to hold the United States accountable for torture and abuse suffered by prisoners detained by U.S. forces. We’ve filed a FOIA lawsuit to get documents about the torture and abuse, we’ve sued Donald Rumsfeld and several other officials on behalf of Iraqi and Afghani torture victims, we’ve supported the McCain amendment to outlaw cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and we’ve urged experts at the United Nations to hold the U.S. accountable for violating long-established universal human rights principles that prohibit torture at any time for any reason.
Today I and representatives of other human rights groups – Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists – provided a briefing to CAT committee members at the Palais des Nations. The CAT committee monitors a country’s compliance with the Convention Against Torture (CAT). Last May, the United States submitted its long-overdue report on its compliance with CAT. Big surprise here – the report says the U.S. does not condone torture! Well that’s really good to know. Now an impressive group of U.S. civil rights and human rights groups are working together to provide the real facts to the CAT committee.
CAT Committee members are a diverse group of experts on torture from around the world – Senegal, Spain, Denmark, Russia, Ecuador etc. At today’s briefing, the CAT members asked perceptive questions about U.S. conduct that show they are more informed about the government’s interrogation policies than some of our elected representatives. Let’s hope our collective pressure on multiple fronts will finally lead to justice.
While cynics justifiably question the effectiveness of U.N. mechanisms that rely primarily on shaming rather than direct sanctions, I am inspired by the founding principles at work here. That every country should care about how every other country treats its citizens and all other persons under its control. That all members of the human family have equal rights deriving from the inherent dignity of every human being. That no human being should ever be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Those principles come into sharp focus when one talks to torture victims. Last week I met Sherzad Kamal Khalid and Thahe Mohammed Sabbar, two Iraqi men who were tortured by U.S. forces and who have courageously joined our lawsuit against Rumsfeld. They were visiting the United States to obtain treatment and to raise public awareness by putting a human face on what we all still tend to discuss too abstractly, too clinically. At dinner with them one night, I asked Sherzad what he thought of the trial of Saddam Hussein. He said, “It is a beautiful thing, to see him get justice in a fair trial.” We can quarrel over details here, but the point is that Sherzad knows the power of the rule of law. We owe it to Sherzad and countless other torture victims to enforce the same rule of law when our own leaders commit human rights abuses.