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Confronting Critical Choices Concerning Human Rights and Torture



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On October 27, 12 Nobel Peace Laureates, led by Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and José Ramos-Horta of East Timor, sent President Barack Obama an open letter urging him to make “full discourse to the American people of the extent and use of torture” by the United States during the George W. Bush administration. A share of the prose of these leaders is worth quoting at some length:

We have reason to feel strongly about torture. Many of us among the Nobel Peace Prize laureates have seen firsthand the effects of the use of torture in our own countries. Some are torture survivors ourselves. Many have also been involved in the process of recovery, of helping to walk our countries and our regions out of the shadows of their own periods of conflict and abuse. It is with this experience that we stand firmly with those Americans who are asking the US to bring its use of torture into the light of day, and for the United States to take the necessary steps to emerge from this dark period of its history, never to return.

The questions surrounding the use of torture are not as simple as how one should treat a suspected terrorist, or whether the highly dubious claim that torture produces “better” information than standard interrogation can justify its practice. Torture is, and always has been, justified in the minds of those who order it.

But the damage done by inflicting torture on a fellow human being cannot be so simplified. Nor is the harm done one-sided. Yes, the victims experience extreme physical and mental trauma, in some cases even losing their lives. But those inflicting the torture, as well as those ordering it, are nearly irreparably degraded by the practice.

As torture continues to haunt the waking hours of its victims long after the conflict has passed, so it will continue to haunt its perpetrators. When a nation’s leaders condone and even order torture, that nation has lost its way. One need only look to the regimes where torture became a systematic practice-from Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany to the French in Algeria, South Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge and others – to see the ultimate fate of a regime so divorced from their own humanity.

The practices of torture, rendition and imprisonment without due process by the United States have even greater ramifications. The United States, born of the concept of the inherent equality of all before the law, has been since its inception a hallmark that would be emulated by countries and entire regions of the world. For more than two centuries, it has been the enlightened ideals of America’s founders that changed civilization on Earth for the better, and made the US a giant among nations.

The conduct of the United States in the treatment of prisoners through two World Wars, upholding the tenets of the Geneva Convention while its own soldiers suffered greatly from violations at the hands of its enemies, again set a standard of treatment of prisoners that was emulated by other countries and regions.

These are the Americans we know. And believing that most Americans still share these ideals, these are the Americans we speak to.

In recent decades, by accepting the flagrant use of torture and other violations of international law in the name of combating terrorism, American leaders have eroded the very freedoms and rights that generations of their young gave their lives to defend. They have again set an example that will be followed by others; only now, it is one that will be used to justify the use of torture by regimes around the world, including against American soldiers in foreign lands. In losing their way, they have made us all vulnerable.

From around the world, we will watch in the coming weeks as the release of the Senate findings on the United States torture program brings the country to a crossroads. It remains to be seen whether the United States will turn a blind eye to the effects of its actions on its own people and on the rest of the world, or if it will take the necessary steps to recover the standards on which the country was founded, and to once again adhere to the international conventions it helped to bring into being.[1]

The Laureates specifically referenced the continuing impasse between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee concerning whether and under what conditions to declassify a 480-page executive summary of a report detailing the extent and use of torture on terrorism suspects by the United States following the September 11, 2001 attacks. President Obama has thus far not insisted on releasing the account and is under strong pressure from human rights advocates (including his fellow Peace laureates) to do so as a gesture aimed at reclaiming some modicum of transparency and legitimacy for the United States in efforts to ensure human rights for its own citizens and those of other countries around the world.

But this issue hardly ends the sad legacy of cruelty now hanging over this country as a result of its misguided foray into rendition, torture and deprivation of due process under President George W. Bush, even if President Obama finally sides with his Senate colleagues and releases the account of this nation’s abuses (before the Republican takeover of that body in January, when such a step will almost certainly not occur). As Tutu and Ramos-Horta and their colleagues contended in their letter, the U.S. also must find a way to end its continued imprisonment of individuals without due process of law at its facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, despite the nation’s own tribunals having declared more than half of those in captivity no threat to America. Congress has thus far refused to allow any of these individuals to be transferred to American soil, even those who will remain imprisoned. So, “Gitmo” remains operational as a living symbol of a nation that betrayed its own founding principles (and continues to do so) in a cruel spasm of fear and imperial swagger.

In addition to these concerns, out of desperation and in protest of their indefinite detention without due process, many prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have undertaken hunger strikes during the past year. These have been met by forced feeding by enteral tube, a practice that these individuals’ lawyers have uniformly labeled torture. When force-feeding occurs, a group of five riot-gear-equipped Marines enter a detainee’s cell and physically subdue and tie him to a chair. Thereafter an enteral tube is forced into his nose and down his esophagus and a liquid feeding follows. Until this summer, those undertaking these actions lubricated that plastic hose with olive oil in lieu of a medical product manufactured for the purpose, putting the prisoners at risk of contracting a form of pneumonia with each such effort. In addition, the procedure is undertaken for each feeding, risking injury and worse with each insertion, since the intervention is deeply irritating to relevant tissues. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. decided earlier this year that the District Court indeed has jurisdiction in the case, so the matter of whether this practice constitutes torture is now before Judge Gladys Kessler, and a decision is expected soon. Judge Kessler will have the benefit of Department of Defense videos of these episodes to consider as she ponders her decision. In an echo of the Laureates’ broader call for transparency, she must also decide whether to release those videotapes to the general public.

Finally, the Obama administration must shortly appear before the Committee against Torture, a body of 10 independent experts that monitors compliance with the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, in Geneva to detail its policy. As it has done with the Senate Report, the CIA, in this case joined by the Department of Defense, is resisting Department of State calls for the U.S., a treaty signatory, to report that it will not permit torture either here or abroad, directly or indirectly, under its aegis. American policy has embraced the State Department’s stance formally since 2009, when President Obama required such a course by Executive Order, and arguably since a 2005 law earlier demanded it. Nonetheless, while President George W. Bush signed the 2005 statute, he accompanied it with a statement that his authority as chief executive could trump its provisions, leaving the matter unclear until President Obama’s Order. Now, officials at the Defense Department and in the CIA argue that America should not categorically indicate its current policy applies both in the United States and outside its borders, for fear of law suits and reprisals against individuals who were involved in its past torture-related actions.

All of these difficult situations have arisen because a few of the nation’s past leaders, most notably former Vice President Dick Cheney and former President George W. Bush, elected to abandon the United States’ long-time devotion to its own principles and set out to torture, while systematically doing all in their power to obfuscate their actions. These deeply misanthropic and misguided acts continue to expose Americans to like treatment and to make a mockery of U.S. core values. It is therefore incumbent now on this administration and the courts to do all in their power to remedy the continuing injustices and lack of transparency that have resulted from these actions. As President Obama’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates noted, the very idea of what it means to be an American now hangs in the balance.



Publication Date

November 9, 2014