Latin America's Lessons for the US: Prosecute the Torturers

Why can the United States not prosecute those responsible for the torture program? The fact is there is no good reason. And if we do not, we run the risk not only of such heinous practices being used again, but of destroying the very democracy we claim to hold so dear. Torture is an affront to human dignity.
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January, 2013: Protesters dressed as Guantánamo detainees assembled in front of the US Department of Justice to raise awareness of the men indefinitely detained and tortured by the US government. (Photo: Justin Norman)

The release of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee report on torture has caused great impact, reviving debate worldwide about the United States' use of torture in the aftermath of 9/11. Some have applauded the report, and have noted that torture is prohibited by U.S. and international law and as such those responsible must be held accountable. Those who supported this policy -- including those who put it in motion, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney -- have decried the report, accusing its authors of bias and reasserting claims that torture kept the United States safe from further terrorist attacks. But they do not deny that torture was used.

As an academic and long-time human rights activist, I welcome the release of the Senate report. Hard-nosed fact-finding and truth-seeking is important in the aftermath of atrocity. A report of this nature can help set the record straight about what happened, and determine, based on careful review of the evidence, whether such atrocities were the doing of a few "bad apples" or of systematic state policy. This is important even when it was long known that the use of torture was official policy during the Bush years. A report like this can also generate national debate about controversial methods, help citizens evaluate and reevaluate their view of such methods, and determine whether they should be followed by other actions -- including, potentially, criminal prosecutions.

Many of my fellow citizens vehemently repudiate the use of torture, at home or abroad. Over the years I have worked with hundreds of academics, activists, and policymakers who have dedicated their lives to ending torture and other human rights abuses in Latin America and around the world. Others believe the official discourse repeated ad nauseam during the Bush years that torture -- referred to euphemistically as "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- was both necessary and effective to obtaining key information to prevent future attacks. It is my hope that those who hold this belief will read the Senate report, for if they do they will surely be abhorred by its revelations: that the United States of America, which purports to be a beacon of freedom and liberty, a defender and advocate of human rights, sanctioned the use of torture; and that this is not only a juridical aberration, but a moral one as well. It is my hope that it will lead them to rethink their views, and repudiate torture and its use forever, here and around the globe.

Which leads me to my second point about the Senate report. Its revelations are important on their own, but they also underline the fact that the U.S. government engaged in patently illegal behavior, both by the standard of its own law, and by the standard of international law. The Convention against Torture, which the United States signed and ratified -- and as such is bound by its provisions -- establishes not only the illegality of torture, but also the obligation of states to investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible for authorizing or committing torture. The United States stands in blatant violation of its international obligations by failing to move forward on a credible path of criminal prosecutions of those most responsible for the torture program. As such, it undermines its standing in the international arena, and obliterates its credibility as a defender and advocate of human rights around the world.


My own research focuses on Latin America, a continent that, when I first began working there, was beset by brutal military dictatorships and fratricidal civil wars. Many of the countries emerging from the dark night of authoritarianism and civil conflict turned to a relatively new practice: the creation of official commissions of inquiry, dubbed truth commissions, that set out to investigate fully the abuses of the past, acknowledge the horrors endured by victims, and make recommendations to provide repair to victims and ensure that such abuses never occur again. The catchphrase "Nunca mas!" -- "Never again!" -- became the rallying cry of a generation emerging from the dungeons of dictatorship and one of the cornerstones of the modern human rights movement.

Several Latin American countries created official truth commissions to investigate the abuses of past dictatorships. In most cases, still-powerful militaries made fragile new democracies wary of prosecuting human rights violators. When Argentina sought to do just that, convicting first the top generals responsible for the disappearance of thousands of regime opponents, military unrest prompted the government to pass amnesty laws that prohibited further prosecutions. The Uruguayan Congress passed an amnesty law to prevent impending civil prosecutions, citing unrest in Argentina as proof that investigating military abuses would undermine the newly won democracy. In Chile, while a truth commission investigated the Pinochet regime's abuses, prosecutions were not pursued for the same reason. Torturers continued to enjoy their freedom, while victims were robbed of their right to justice for the wrongs committed against them.

Today, years later, many Latin American countries have moved past this situation of impunity for human rights abuses. Amnesty laws have been overturned or ignored, and criminal trials have moved forward in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, and Guatemala. This has not been a linear or uncontested process--there have been setbacks, as in the quick overturning of the genocide verdict against former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt last year--but the fact is that Latin America is leading the way in demonstrating that it is possible to investigate and prosecute human rights violations. Some of the most heinous dictators of the region have been tried and convicted -- Videla, Fujimori, Bordaberry, to name a few -- and democracy in those countries is the stronger for it. The Brazilian National Truth Commission -- 50 years after a military coup established one of the longest standing dictatorships in modern Latin American history -- just released its own report, outlining the abuses committed during the military regime and calling for prosecutions of those still-surviving military officers responsible.

Why can the United States not prosecute those responsible for the torture program? The fact is there is no good reason. And if we do not, we run the risk not only of such heinous practices being used again, but of destroying the very democracy we claim to hold so dear. Torture is an affront to human dignity. It cannot be justified, ever. And when it is done in our name, it is our responsibility to act: to stand up, say "Never Again!", and to insist that those responsible be held accountable.

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