The Obama administration moved forcefully Thursday to distance itself from Bush administration policies, telling a United Nations panel that the ban on torture enshrined in a 1984 treaty that the U.S. signed applies worldwide and covers all people and places, including detention facilities abroad.
“The answer to the question whether the U.S. will abide by the universal ban on torture and cruel treatment in armed conflicts, or beyond U.S. borders, including Bagram and Guantánamo, is unequivocally, yes,” said Mary McLeod, the acting legal adviser to the U.S. State Department. She specifically mentioned U.S. run detention centers in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, where allegations of mistreatment have been common.
The long-awaited clarification came in the closing minutes of a two-day session to review U.S. compliance with the 1984 Convention Against Torture.
“The understanding of this statement is the prohibition of torture is absolute for the American administration,” said Alessio Bruni, an Italian member of the U.N.’s 10-member Committee Against Torture, which oversees compliance of the 156 countries that have signed the accord.
Bruni told McClatchy that the statement makes acts of torture undertaken by U.S. officials anywhere in the world punishable as crimes under the treaty’s Article 4. U.S. officials cannot escape responsibility by transferring a prisoner to another country.
“This is black and white in their statement,” he said.
Earlier, McLeod had stated “the prohibition on torture is categorical, there are no gaps.”
The limits of U.S. policy toward the torture convention have been sharply debated since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
The Bush administration said that the treaty’s ban on torture did not apply to U.S. actions outside the United States and that U.S. legal jurisdiction did not extend to the Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where it set up a prison for suspected terrorists that this week held 148 war-on-terror detainees. It also set up a series of secret detention centers run by the CIA in other countries where prisoners were subjected to harsh interrogation tactics.
The Obama administration since renounced those positions generally. But this week’s statements were the first assertion of those positions before the U.N. committee that oversees the convention.
The committee welcomed the change but still expressed dissatisfaction with answers the administration gave on other issues related to treatment at Guantánamo and what forms of interrogation are permitted by the Army Field Manual, the guide that governs questioning and treatment of prisoners by all U.S. agencies.
Administration officials provided no answer to when the detention center at Guantánamo will be closed, and it rejected any private meetings between detainees there and the special U.N. expert on torture, Juan Mendes, who has sought access.
The administration also said that it would not release videos of a prisoner being force-fed at Guantánamo, citing national security concerns. A federal judge in Washington already has ordered the videos released, however, though her order is on appeal.
The committee also questioned Brig. Gen. Richard Gross, the legal counsel to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the Army Field Manual’s standard of at least four hours of sleep for prisoners. Bruni objected that four hours of sleep over many days amounts to sleep deprivation – a prohibited form of torture. Gross noted, however, that prisoners can be granted more sleep, depending on circumstances.
The panel also voiced concerns at the high levels of police violence against blacks, the poor conditions in prisons, including sexual violence, the militarization of the police, and the treatment of undocumented migrants in the United States. They noted that in Chicago in 2009-13, blacks accounted for 32.3 percent of the population but 75 percent of people shot by police.
The proceedings were marked by a silent protest by about 10 Chicago-based activists to protest the death of Dominique Franklin Jr., who died in May after police shot him with a Taser.
Jamil Dakwar, the human rights program director for the American Civil Liberties Union, was critical of the U.S. delegation’s performance.
“The U.S. responses today fall short of meeting its obligations under the anti-torture treaty,” he said. “This is especially true for practices that emerged or became entrenched since President Obama came into office, such as indefinite detention at Guantánamo as well as immigration detention and deportations. President Obama’s legacy on human rights is now hanging in the balance.”
The findings of the U.N. panel will be published on Nov. 28.
Zarocostas is a McClatchy special correspondent.