Thursday, September 02, 2010

The U.S. Commitment to Human Rights, Apparently Only a Domestic Policy

We, as Americans, are incredibly fortunate. We live in a country where our civil liberties, political rights, and arguably the most important—our inherent human rights—are diligently and meticulously protected. The irony of this is that in the past few years, the American government has become loose with their morals on the matter. The paradox that the Clinton, Bush, and now the Obama regimes have created (and perpetuated) is that while our—by that, I mean us Americans—rights are defended and safeguarded, unlawful and inhumane interrogation techniques are used discreetly by government agencies and employees in violation of several human rights that are entitled to Americans and non-Americans alike. The United States of America is highly civilized, ranks fairly high in literacy rates, and for the most part is extremely just. Then how is it that a country such as ours justifies its use of torture with little to no shame and an inflated sense of what is necessary to protect national security?
Aside from the provisions against torture included in 1948’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights also outlined the definitions of torture in 1975 in their Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment. Comprised of 12 articles, the declaration was adopted by the General Assembly and not only classifies what constitutes acts of torture but pronounces that each state within the UN should take “effective measures” to prevent the use of torture, in addition to ensuring that public officials who are responsible for people “deprived of their liberty” are properly trained in interrogation and general dealings with such people to prevent the use of torture or cruel punishment.
In 1984 the prevention of torture was taken even a step further with the passing of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which unlike the 1975 document, not only defines torture but initiates the Committee Against Torture—a body of human rights experts that monitors the actual implementation of prevention against torture of the Convention signatories.
As evident in the comprehensive history of the prevention against torture, the world has been aware of the need to stop cruel punishment and inhumane treatment for quite some time. As of 2010, for example, 146 nations are parties to the treaty. In fact, “[o]n February 4, 1985, the Convention was opened for signature at United Nations Headquarters in New York…representatives of the following countries signed it: Afghanistan, Argentina, Belgium, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Finland, France, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Senegal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Uruguay. Subsequently, signatures were received from Venezuela on February 15, from Luxembourg and Panama on February 22, from Austria on March 14, and from the United Kingdom on March 15, 1985” What’s missing from this list is, quite plainly, The United States of America—who first signed in 1988 but didn’t ratify the treaty until 1994. Perhaps this hesitance in signing and then subsequently ratifying was a sign for things to come.
A simple historical recollection of the various treaties and declarations that make efforts to define torture is not enough to understand the relationship the United States has with the protection of human rights and its provisions on torture. Although the U.S. has taken part in all of the declarations of the prevention of torture that the United Nations has passed—however reluctantly—the United States appears to act in complete violation of the provisions outlined by such declarations. Although this trend is visible in the actions of presidents as early as Clinton—with his administration’s initiation of extraordinary rendition policy—the escalation of such behavior is especially noticeable in the post-9/11 days of the Bush administration. In 2002, the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department issued a memo saying that aggressive interrogations amount to torture only if they cause pain "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." Although this memo was rescinded by the Bush administration in 2004, since then it is still unclear what interrogation techniques were permissible and which were actually put in use. According to the New York Times article on the topic of torture, the New York Times printed an article in 2007 that revealed that in February 2005 the Justice Department issued a secret memorandum that reportedly provides authorization to “barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics.” It is believed by many officials in the Bush administration that these types of interrogations prevented further terrorist attacks.
This opinion—that these types of interrogations prevent future terrorist attacks—is expressed effortlessly but in fact it has many appalling implications. It is frightening to hear that officials who work for the government favor a means that is immoral in nature in order to protect the U.S. It is plain to understand that the horrific acts of September 11th were indeed inhumane and immoral. However, instead of combating these acts with justice and handling the terrorists with methods deemed constitutional by our standards and permissible by the standards of the international community, the administration’s use of torture exemplifies that we too chose a method that is depraved. The number of detainees that have been affected by harsh interrogation techniques may not be equitable to those affected by the 9/11 attacks but both are immoral and cowardly nonetheless. As a beacon for democracy, freedom, and advanced rights, the United States should combat situations that compromise their security with methods that at least uphold these values that the U.S. stands for. Also overlooked it seems, is that with the use of techniques that are illegal and inhumane, it makes it impossible for the United States to actually try these detainees in a court of law. So although interrogators may obtain incriminating evidence from such interrogations, a punishment may not be legally ordained.
The case of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen charged for the murder of Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer and attempted murder for helping to make and plant improvised explosive devices, acts as an example of the uncertain treatment of trial procedures of Guantanamo detainees. Khadr was 15 at the time of his arrest and although understanding the complexities of his case and where it stands today is difficult, it is possible to understand certain incongruities with his treatment while in Guantanamo.
Although there is no doubt about Khadr’s involvement with al Qaeda—it is even reported that Khadr played alongside Osama bin Laden’s children as a child—how the United States chose to deal with him is questionable. The problem with Khadr’s case is centered on the issue of his youth. As 60 Minutes reported: “Omar Khadr is the only person in modern history to be tried for war crimes that he allegedly committed as a minor.” Khadr was incarcerated as a minor among adult detainees, and was also interrogated for two years before having access to lawyers. Currently, eight years after being first incarcerated, Khadr has spent a third of his life detained in Guantanamo. According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, regarding children in armed conflict, signatory states are obliged to provide separate legal representation—in addition to many other provisions such as having the matter determined without delay and “a variety of dispositions” like counseling and education. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, also states that "the special needs of those children who are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities," and requires its signatories to promote "the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict." The United States, a signatory of the Convention and the Optional Protocol, has seemingly withheld these provisions in dealing with Khadr’s case—once again highlighting the United States’ tendency to violate provisions it is required to uphold as a signatory of a treaty.
In addition to violating the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Child, the United States is also ignoring certain laws of war and war crimes. Trying Khadr for war crimes may not even be lawful. According to Article 4 of the Geneva Prisoner of War Convention, an unprivileged belligerent—in that he or she is not wearing a uniform of carrying arms openly—is still a member of an organized militia and therefore must follow the laws of war. If the unprivileged belligerent complies to the laws of war by attacking a lawful military target with a lawful weapon, the he or she is to be tried by the domestic criminal court. In the case of Khadr—he complied with the laws of war and therefore should not have been detained in Guantanamo or tried for war crimes.
Also disturbing about Khadr’s case is that an interrogator, Sergeant Joshua Claus —whose name was initially withheld by journalists at the order of the Department of Defense—had testified to telling the detainee Khadr a fictional story about another Afghan prisoner who was gang-raped in American custody. Sgt. Claus was later sentenced to five months in prison for the mistreatment of prisoners.
As evident with the Omar Khadr case, as well as U.S. actions during interrogations and military commissions in general, it is apparent that the United States is guilty of many contradictions. In attempts to protect national security and fight a war on terror, the United States is willfully ignoring all the provisions it is obliged to as a signatory of various vital treaties and protocols protecting the human rights of individuals and safeguarding people against torture. Although the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution also reflects a commitment to preserving human rights, while heralding fair treatment by the federal government, this paradox continues to vex the nation. And although some steps are being taken towards ending this behavior, there is still not enough transparency in such situations.

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