On human rights, the United States must be a beacon. America is strongest when our policies and actions match our values.More
Home / Blog / The U.S. Upholds U.N. Torture Treaty, but Questions Linger
November 18, 2014

The U.S. Upholds U.N. Torture Treaty, but Questions Linger

Last Wednesday a U.S. delegation testified before the Committee Against Torture on compliance with the U.N. treaty. In 2005, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez argued that the treaty did not apply beyond the borders of the United States—a position meant to provide cover for torture in places like Guantanamo Bay and CIA black sites.

As a Senator, President Obama opposed that position—so it seemed likely that he would do so as president. There were reports, however, that he might uphold the Bush administration’s interpretation, prompting opponents of torture, including Nobel laureates and retired military leaders, to call on Obama to affirm that the treaty applied outside the United States.

And he did just that. The delegation in Geneva took a strong stand against torture in all places. Acting Legal Adviser Mary McLeod stated before the Committee, “There should be no doubt: the U.S. affirms that torture and cruel inhuman and degrading treatment are prohibited at all times and in all places and we remain resolute in our adherence to these prohibitions.” The delegation affirmed that the treaty applies beyond the United States, where the United States acts as a “governmental authority.”

Vigilance, however, is still required. The “governmental authority” language needs clarification. The delegation did not define the limits of this authority, but did confirm that it includes the naval base in Guantanamo Bay and U.S. ships and aircraft. Clarity is needed on whether the government affirms that the treaty is operative in places where the United States controls prisons but doesn’t control the government.

At the same time, Obama can solidify his legacy on torture by ensuring release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report with only essential redactions. He allowed the CIA to preside over the redaction process despite egregious conflicts of interests. Committee members have objected to some of its blackouts because they, as Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein says, “eliminate or obscure key facts that support the report’s findings and conclusions,” thus causing a delay as the redactions are re-negotiated.

The CIA may be trying to run down the clock until January when the Senate changes hands and Senator Richard Burr, who is against the public release of the report, takes the committee chair.

Obama needs to direct the report’s public release in its clearest form before the end of the year. Otherwise he risks allowing the back door to be opened for return to the “dark side.”