In a 2006 report – Command’s Responsibility- Human Rights First researchers catalogued the deaths of more than 70 individuals who had been picked up and detained by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to military records which were analyzed, these deaths were ruled to be homicides linked to gross recklessness, abuse or torture.
One of those deaths – an Afghan taxi driver name Dilawar who happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time – is the subject of a new documentary “Down a Dark Road” – which had its premier at the Tribeca Film Festival.
While the military says it has taken steps to address the abuses that have occured, it has not addressed systemic flaws in the investigation of detainee deaths, or in the prosecution and punishment of those responsible for wrongdoing. Most important, they have not addressed the role of those leaders who have emerged as a pivotal part of the problem – military and civilian command.
In its report, HRF called for zero-tolerance approach to commanders in the field who allow these abuses to occur on their watch:
First, the President, as Commander-in-Chief, should move immediately to fully implement the ban on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment passed overwhelmingly by the U.S. Congress and signed into law on December 30, 2005. Full implementation requires that the President clarify his commitment to abide by the ban (which was called into question by the President’s statement signing the bill into law). It also requires the President to instruct all relevant military and intelligence agencies involved in detention and interrogation operations to review and revise internal rules and legal guidance to make sure they are in line with the statutory mandate.
Second, the President, the U.S. military, and relevant intelligence agencies should take immediate steps to make clear that all acts of torture and abuse are taken seriously – not from the moment a crime becomes public, but from the moment the United States sends troops and agents into the field. The President should issue regular reminders to command that abuse will not be tolerated, and commanders should regularly give troops the same, serious message. Relevant agencies should welcome independent oversight – by Congress and the American people – by establishing a centralized, up-to-date, and publicly available collection of information about the status of investigations and prosecutions in torture and abuse cases (including trial transcripts, documents, and evidence presented), and all incidents of abuse. And the Defense and Justice Departments should move forward promptly with long-pending actions against those involved in cases of wrongful detainee death or abuse.
Third, the U.S. military should make good on the obligation of command responsibility by developing, in consultation with congressional, military justice, human rights, and other advisors, a public plan for holding all those who engage in wrongdoing accountable. Such a plan might include the implementation of a single, high-level convening authority across the service branches for allegations of detainee torture and abuse. Such a convening authority would review and make decisions about whom to hold responsible; bring uniformity, certainty, and more independent oversight to the process of discipline and punishment; and make punishing commanders themselves more likely.
Finally, Congress should at long last establish an independent, bipartisan commission to review the scope of U.S. detention and interrogation operations worldwide in the “war on terror.” Such a commission could investigate and identify the systemic causes of failures that lead to torture, abuse, and wrongful death, and chart a detailed and specific path going forward to make sure those mistakes never happen again. The proposal for a commission has been endorsed by a wide range of distinguished Americans from Republican and Democratic members of Congress to former presidents to leaders in the U.S. military. Human Rights First urges Congress to act without further delay.