In President Obama's Second Term, Accountability for Torture

It was four years ago today when President Obama, on his second day in office, signed an executive order to ban torture and cruel treatment in U.S. counterterrorism operations. His swift action, hailed around the world, marked a decisive break from the illegal, misguided and ineffective torture policies of the past.

It is evident the decision to engage in torture and cruel treatment was made by individuals who did not fully appreciate, or perhaps care about, the consequences of using torture.

Torture and cruel treatment not only violated U.S. law and international legal obligations, but undermined our national security and imperiled our leadership throughout the world.

The Center for Victims of Torture has long called for accountability for those officials, regardless of position or rank, who authorized, implemented or failed in their duty to prevent torture and cruel treatment. It is our strong belief that accountability is essential to ensuring that no future presidency slips back to official policies of torture and cruel treatment.

The failure to pursue accountability opens the door for perpetrators of torture to shamelessly continue to justify their actions; to call for the return of these abuses; and to walk away from their crimes scot-free -- all affronts to the rule of law. Let us not forget that torture is a crime under U.S. law, and the United States is legally obligated under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the United States ratified in in 1994, to fully and promptly investigate all credible allegations.

Tragically, U.S. global human rights leadership cannot and will not be taken seriously until its own abusers are held to account.

The consequences for no accountability also pose serious risks to international efforts that aim to bring to justice torturers in other countries. For instance, the U.S. government's ability to press for accountability abroad is severely comprised. Foreign governments that torture with impunity can point to the United States as an excuse to further shield themselves from the search for truth and accountability. Indeed, I have been in several meetings with high-level foreign officials who pointed to the United States to justify their own abusive practices and lack of accountability.

Now in his second term, President Obama can again show the world that the United States is committed to living up to our standards by thoroughly investigating and making public all reports of torture and cruel treatment and by holding accountable those responsible for the abuse.

As an important step in that direction, President Obama should today:

Call for the declassification, to the fullest extent possible, of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's report on the CIA's detention and interrogation program after September 11, 2001. Adopted by the committee last month, the report is now in hands of the executive branch for review and comment.

  • Direct John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, and the President's nominee to be the next Director of the CIA, to state during his upcoming confirmation hearings that, upon his confirmation, he will lead the CIA to review the Senate's report as quickly as possible and will send the report back to the Senate Intelligence Committee with as few redactions as possible.

  • Establish an independent, nonpartisan commission -- headed by distinguished, fair-minded leaders -- to thoroughly and publicly investigate all the facts and circumstances surrounding the use of torture and cruel treatment after September 11, 2001.

    Recent history repeatedly shows that societies cannot fully move on until the issue of accountability for torture and cruel treatment is squarely faced. President Obama's executive order has already sent a signal that we have turned a page on a dark chapter in U.S. policy. His leadership is now again necessary to finally close the book on torture once and for all.

    Curt Goering is executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, an international nongovernmental organization based in Minnesota and dedicated to healing victims of torture.