In 1988, the United States signed the Convention Against Torture, a historic treaty in which nations agreed to end torture, investigate and punish perpetrators, and provide redress to victims. When President Reagan signed the Convention on America’s behalf and transmitted it to Congress for ratification (which occurred in 1994), he said,
Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.
Ten years ago, our government violated both the Convention and our domestic laws when it made torture and abuse of U.S. prisoners abroad a prevalent American practice. Senior members of the Bush administration conspired with Justice Department lawyers to authorize the brutal mistreatment of detainees held in U.S. custody in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo, and the CIA’s secret overseas prisons. To this day our government has failed to fulfill the Convention’s requirements that it provide redress to victims of torture and promptly investigate and prosecute perpetrators. Not a single victim of torture or other abuse has received any measure of redress, and the architects of the torture program have yet to be held to account. Moreover, despite the immense public record documenting these abuses and the role of senior government officials in authorizing them, crucial details remain shrouded in secrecy.
Today is International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, which commemorates the anniversary of the day, twenty-five years ago, that the Convention Against Torture became a binding legal obligation for the countries that had ratified it. On this day, we call upon the government to end this disgraceful state of affairs. To enhance public access and ensure public memory, the ACLU is also launching the ACLU Torture Database, a searchable compilation of government records documenting America’s experiment with torture.
To our national shame, there has been no official apology to the many victims tortured in U.S. custody, nor has the government provided any redress for the grievous harms done to them. None of the individuals who sought to challenge their mistreatment by U.S. officials have been allowed their day in court, for which the courts share sorry responsibility. Despite the Convention Against Torture’s requirement that the United States ensure “fair and adequate compensation” for torture victims, not a single victim has received any compensation. The U.S. government must publicly recognize and apologize for the abuses that were committed, and it must compensate known victims.
To ensure that these horrendous abuses are never repeated, we must also hold to account those who designed, authorized, and implemented the Bush administration’s torture program. Continuing impunity threatens to undermine the universally recognized and absolute prohibition against torture, which is embodied in the Convention, and sends the dangerous signal to government officials that there will be no consequences for their violations of the law. The Justice Department has conducted only a limited investigation of torture and has yet to announce whether any indictments will result. Before statutes of limitation expire and it becomes too late for prosecutors to act, the government must hold those responsible for the torture program accountable.
The government should also create a public record of the Bush administration’s torture program. The ACLU and its partner organizations have secured thousands of relevant documents, but too much remains secret. The CIA continues to suppress hundreds of cables describing its use of waterboarding and other forms of harsh treatment. The military has refused to disclose over 2,000 photographs of detainee abuse from facilities throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. And the government continues to closely guard a presidential memorandum issued on September 17, 2001, authorizing the CIA to establish its secret “black sites.” In order for our nation truly to move forward, we need to reckon fully with the record of the past. The Obama administration must release the remaining torture records.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has the ability to help our nation grapple with its recent history. For the last three years, the Committee has been investigating the CIA’s use of torture, and in the process it has reviewed over six million pages of government documents. Once finalized, the Committee’s report should be released, with minimal redactions only to protect legitimate secrets, and not unlawful conduct.
Today’s launch of the ACLU’s Torture Database is part of our effort to provide meaningful transparency and create a record for future accountability. The Torture Database is a new repository of records documenting our government’s use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. It reflects more than two years of development and analysis of well over 100,000 pages of government documents obtained primarily through Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the ACLU and its partner organizations. We are continually adding more documents to the database and hope that it will be an authoritative source of information about the Bush administration’s policies and practices on rendition, detention, and interrogation. You can search the database at www.thetorturedatabase.org.
The ACLU remains committed to upholding the prohibition against torture, in ensuring that U.S. officials who authorized torture are held accountable, and in obtaining acknowledgement and redress for torture victims. You can learn more about our work here: www.aclu.org/accountability.