WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has formally endorsed provisions of an international treaty banning torture and cruel treatment of prisoners held by the United States abroad, reversing an interpretation by the George W. Bush administration that it did not apply to detainees held overseas.
In a statement Wednesday to a U.N. treaty-monitoring committee in Geneva, Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski said, “We believe that torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment are forbidden in all places, at all times, with no exceptions.”
Although U.S. law and an executive order issued by President Barack Obama on his third day in office prohibit cruelty, the administration had not formally repudiated a 2005 interpretation by the Bush administration that the treaty did not apply “with respect to aliens overseas.”
State Department acting legal adviser Mary McLeod affirmed to the committee that the definition covers all areas under U.S. jurisdiction and territory that the United States “controls as a governmental authority,” including the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and “with respect to U.S.-registered ships and aircraft.”
Several terrorism suspects captured overseas in recent years have been held for interrogation aboard U.S. naval vessels at sea before transfer to civil courts in this country.
McLeod also reaffirmed that no statement made by a person as a result of torture is admissible in any legal proceeding. She said that treaty provisions, some of which are also covered in other international covenants as well as U.S. law, also apply during wartime. Congress in 1994 ratified the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The statements drew largely positive reactions from human rights groups, as well as some apparent skepticism from the committee. Committee investigators posed several questions, including about Guantanamo, as well as conditions of civil incarceration in the United States, that U.S. representatives are to address at a second session on Thursday.
In his opening statement Wednesday, committee investigator Alessio Bruni of Italy said the United States must answer for alleged violations, including secret CIA renditions of terrorism suspects to black sites in third countries under the Bush administration, as well as allegations of domestic police brutality.
Although the Obama administration has acknowledged torture at the CIA sites that were closed by Bush before he left office, no U.S. official has been legally held accountable for such action. The administration has rejected charges that the handling of some Guantanamo prisoners, including forced feeding and the continued detention of most without charge, constitutes inhumane treatment.
Human Rights First, one of several international rights organizations that have criticized what they have seen as an administration lapse over the treaty, called the statement “an important step toward making clear that the prohibition on torture and other official cruelty is not just a policy but a legal obligation – one that the United States carries out when it acts beyond the water’s edge.”
But the American Civil Liberties Union, while saying it was “pleased” with the affirmation of the torture ban, called on the administration to “go a step further and clarify that its treaty obligations apply to all official U.S. conduct, especially where the U.S. has effective control abroad.”
ACLU Human Rights Program Director Jamil Dakwar, who attended the Geneva meeting, questioned what he called “ambiguous” wording in McLeod’s statement that could allow short-term or transitory detention by the CIA overseas.
The Minnesota-based Center for Victims of Torture raised the same issue, noting in a statement that U.S. officials “left unclear” whether treaty provisions apply “to all places where the U.S. government exercises effective control abroad, including transitory detention facilities.” The center expressed hope that U.S. representatives will clarify Thursday whether the treaty “will be applied unconditionally, universally, and without any reservation.”
The accountability issue is likely to re-emerge in the United States with the release of a lengthy summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s classified report on the detention and interrogation program that was put in place following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The release has been held up in a dispute between the committee majority and the CIA over portions of the report the intelligence agency believes should remain secret.
In her remarks to the committee, McLeod said that “in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, we regrettably did not always live up to our own values. … As President Obama has acknowledged, we crossed the line and we take responsibility for that.”