Enhanced Interrogation – A Tortured Definition, and US Leadership after the Global War on Terror

Abu Ghraib never really faded from memory.  The images shattered the idea that the United States upheld equally the life and dignity of not just its citizens but of its friends and its foes.  The Senate’s (heavily redacted) torture report released earlier this week renews, with full, brutal force, the debate on torture, enhanced interrogation, and America’s place in the world.

The United Nation’s Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment entered into force on 1987 and enjoys the support of 156 parties.  The United States’ obligations to the treaty began under President Clinton in 1994.  Article 1 includes the following text:

For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession…

Other treaty obligations include (1) not extraditing a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that (s)he would be in danger of being subjected to torture, and (2) ensure that all acts of torture are offenses under each party’s criminal law.

The United States potentially runs afoul of the UN treaty on three levels:

1. The CIA used enhanced interrogation methods (waterboarding, rectal feeding, shackling) to produce intelligence, shattering the distinction between enhanced interrogation and torture by the UN Convention’s own definition of the term.

2. The United States, using extraordinary rendition, flew suspected terrorists to foreign but friendly governments that sanctioned torture sessions on the US’s behalf.

3. The US Department of Justice declined earlier this week to re-open a criminal investigation of Americans involved in the post-September 11 torture.

The US Constitution also prohibits acts of cruel and unusual punishment and guarantees certain inalienable rights to those accused of crimes against the state.  Of course, US officials would argue–and correctly so–that the US Constitution applies only to US Citizens.  How true.

Yet, how very disappointing.  If the United States is a beacon of hope and a shining light of democracy to the world, if the United States is a true custodian of human rights and a steward of its own constitution, then how could a Abu Ghraib ever happen?  Will other countries continue to follow the United States through the moral vacuum we created?  Will China and other human rights abusers listen when the United States speaks up for women, gays, and other minorities the world over?

For better or for worse, in doing research for this piece I came across references to Mai Lai (Vietnam) and the Japanese Internment Camps (World War II).  The incidents serve to remind us that the United States was, and will continue to be, a global leader, global arbitrator, and global policeman.  The most recent abuses under the War on Terror, President Obama’s order to stop torturing its enemies of the state, and the US Senate favoring transparency over secrecy by releasing the report, should remind all of us how far we have come, and how very far we have to go, in order to form a more perfect Union and make the world a better place.


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