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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Human Rights Watch to the Obama Administration: Don’t Let Torturers Get a Free Pass

- Peter Laumann

In a powerful Washington Post op-ed today, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth reminds us that we cannot truly move forward as a country without holding accountable those officials who authorized and justified torture.

Republicans have continued to engage in “self-serving propaganda” by claiming that torture led us to Osama bin Laden (it didn’t), or that we can’t prosecute terror suspects in civilian courts because (inherently unreliable) evidence seized through torture is inadmissible. In his op-ed today, Roth gives two decisive reasons to reject President Obama’s equivocal “look forward, not backward” approach to torture: without accountability, there is nothing to stop torture from happening again; and not investigating and prosecuting tortures is a violation of our binding obligations under the Geneva Conventions and U.N. Convention against Torture.

Roth’s piece coincides with the release of Getting Away with Torture, a methodical Human Rights Watch Report cataloging, in painful detail, the harsh realities of the torture regime, the legal case for accountability, and what remains to be done. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has failed to enforce the law and prosecute those who now gloat over their authorization of torture. While the investigation assigned to Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham once carried promise, its scope was limited only to personnel on the ground who exceeded authorized interrogation techniques, rather than to those at the top who fabricated new legal doctrines to justify a clearly illegal regime of torture. Even in this severely circumscribed class of roughly one hundred cases, only two will receive a full criminal investigation from the Department of Justice.

The Convention against Torture authorizes universal jurisdiction for punishing war crimes. After waiting for the United States to follow its legal obligations, Spain initiated investigations into Bush Administration officials’ complicity in the torture regime, after its criminal case against Spanish Guantánamo Bay detainees fell apart due to the systematic abuse of prisoners at the American prison facility.

Another lawsuit filed by victims of alleged torture in Switzerland forced former President Bush to cancel his trip to the country in February.

Human Rights Watch has urged the United States to comply with its obligations through a series of targeted recommendations. These include: full pursuit of Department of Justice criminal investigations into post-9/11 interrogation and detention practices; a nonpartisan Congressional commission to use a variety of tools – including the possible appointment of a special prosecutor – to investigate mistreatment of detainees; and ensuring that victims of torture are provided adequate redress as required by the Convention against Torture.

Other countries have gone through a period of soul-searching, during which former government officials were held accountable for serious crimes. Conservatives made a national spectacle with President Clinton’s impeachment for sexual misconduct. It is time that the far more serious offense of legitimizing torture – a clear crime against humanity under binding human rights treaties and domestic law – is brought to justice through the American legal system. Alliance for Justice documented the radical justifications for torture in Tortured Law, and continues to advocate for full accountability for those officials in the U.S. government who legitimized torture.

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