FAQ: The Convention Against Torture
What is the Convention Against Torture?
The Convention Against Torture is the most important international human rights treaty that deals exclusively with torture. The Convention obligates countries who have signed the treaty to prohibit and prevent torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in all circumstances. The Convention compels governments who ratified it to investigate all allegations of torture, to bring to justice the perpetrators, and to provide a remedy to victims of torture. The Convention was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1984 and went into force in 1987. As of April 2006, 141 countries have ratified the Convention.
Why does the U.S. have to comply with the Convention Against Torture?
Because the U.S. ratified the treaty in October 1994, it is obligated to comply with the provisions of the treaty just as it would any other domestic law. The U.S. Constitution itself makes clear that treaties are “the law of the land.”
Does the Convention apply only to U.S. actions abroad?
No. The Convention Against Torture applies to all U.S. actions inside the United States and all U.S. actions outside the United States wherever the U.S. exercises effective control. For example, the Convention applies to the actions of U.S. officials at U.S. detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq.
Does the Convention apply only to the federal government and its officials?
No. The Convention applies to all government entities and agents, including all state and local governments in the United States. The Convention thus applies to government actions in all prisons and jails in the U.S., and to all police departments and other state and local law enforcement agencies. The Convention also applies to private contractors who carry out government functions.
What is the Committee Against Torture?
The Committee Against Torture is a body of 10 independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention Against Torture. Committee members are elected for a term of four years and must be from countries that have ratified the Convention. The current members of the Committee come from: Chile, Spain, Norway, Senegal, Morocco, United States, China, Cyprus, Ecuador, and Russia.
What does the Committee Against Torture do?
The Committee Against Torture meets twice a year in Geneva, in May and November. Countries who have ratified the Convention Against Torture are obliged to report to the Committee every four years. At its twice yearly sessions, the Committee reviews these country reports. Five to seven countries are invited to present their reports at each session. The Committee examines each report and addresses its concerns and recommendations to the country in the form of “concluding observations.”
Has the United States submitted reports about its compliance with the Convention Against Torture?
Yes. The U.S. submitted its most recent report in May 2005. The report was several years overdue; the last U.S. report was submitted in 1999. The concluding observations from the Committee Against Torture on the last U.S. report are available at http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/(Symbol)/A.55.44,paras.175-180.En?OpenDocument. The U.S. Department of State, currently headed by Condoleeza Rice, is responsible for drafting the reports and attending the Committee sessions in Geneva.
What will happen at the Committee Against Torture session in Geneva?
On May 5 and 8, 2006, the Committee Against Torture will review the United States report in two public meetings which will be held at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Representatives from the U.S. Department of State will address the Committee and answer questions by Committee members. Some of these questions will be based on the list of issues and questions the Committee identified during its November 2005 meeting.
What will happen after the Committee Against Torture reviews the U.S. report?
At the end of its session, the Committee Against Torture will issue a list of concerns and recommendations regarding the U.S. compliance with the Convention. Among its recommendations, the Committee may identify certain areas of concern and may ask for additional information from the U.S., within one year, on measures the U.S. has taken to address these concerns. While the recommendations are not legally binding, they place an important moral obligation on the U.S. government, which has committed to complying with the treaty before the nations of the world.
What is the role of human rights and civil liberties organizations in the treaty compliance process?
Domestic human rights organizations, or non-governmental organizations (NGOs), are encouraged to participate whenever the Committee considers a country's compliance with the treaty. Many groups submit information in the form of “shadow reports,” and provide Committee members with a list of suggested questions and areas of concerns regarding the country report. The Committee relies in part on factual information provided by NGOs to counter information submitted by the government in its report.
Why is the ACLU involved in the review process? I thought the ACLU was a domestic civil liberties organization.
The ACLU is the nation's largest civil liberties organization, and is one of the few domestic groups that works extensively to end torture and abuse both domestically and abroad. It is important for the ACLU and other domestic human rights and civil liberties groups to participate in the treaty compliance process to send a message to the rest of the world that we will not tolerate torture and abuse by our own government.
How has the ACLU been involved in the current review process?
The ACLU has been involved in the process since the U.S. submitted its report in May 2005. Together with other human rights NGOs it provided the Committee with a list of issues that the U.S. should be required to respond to, and participated in an NGO presentation to the Committee about the U.S. report at the November 2005 session in Geneva.
The ACLU prepared and submitted a comprehensive shadow report that documents U.S. failure to comply with the treaty both at home and abroad.
Finally, the ACLU will send three staff members to Geneva in early May to participatein the session on the U.S. report. The ACLU and other US-based human rights NGOs will hold briefings with members of the Committee where they highlight U.S. failure to comply withthe Convention and recommend measures that the U.S. must take to comply withits treaty obligations.