The Convention Against Torture 25 Years Later

It is with great sadness that I reflect on what is a significant anniversary for all involved in the struggle to advance human rights: this year's 25th anniversary of the United States signing of the UN Convention Against Torture.
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We are a nation that takes pride in our shared belief in the values of dignity, equality and freedom from injustice. Living up to those values is another thing.

In my travels around the world, I have met hundreds of people struggling for greater freedom, democracy and dignity. Many looked to the United States for principled support and leadership on human rights. Often, they were disappointed when our actions betrayed our rhetoric. But when the United States descended to the dark side post 9/11, U.S. credibility to promote human rights abroad was shattered.

So it is with great sadness that I reflect on what is a significant anniversary for all involved in the struggle to advance human rights: this year's 25th anniversary of the United States signing of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

President Reagan, in his last year in office, proposed signing the Convention, noting the active and effective participation of the United States in negotiating the treaty. It was approved under President George H.W. Bush with implementing legislation signed into law by President Clinton.

Throughout the process, the Convention, and a Congressional resolution against torture which preceded it, received strong support in from both sides of the aisle. This bipartisan leadership and spirit demonstrated the strength of the consensus Americans and their elected leaders held against torture.

But that consensus was gradually eroded after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. Our leaders at the time responded to the crisis in a way that is strikingly similar to other world leaders -- left and right -- who rationalize the use of torture by dehumanizing the victim, citing national emergencies and security as justification and assuming an ability to produce a desired outcome through fear and violence.

Although President Obama signed an executive order banning torture and cruel treatment, his administration lacks the conviction to do what is necessary to stop the festering legacy of torture and cruel treatment -- a legacy that includes the very real possibility that abusive treatment could again become official policy.

In his transmission to the Senate, President Reagan emphasized, "The core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called 'universal jurisdiction.'"

To date, the U.S. government has not provided a complete account of its use of torture and cruel treatment, despite credible evidence of U.S. violations of the Convention. As a result, no senior-level official has been held accountable.

The consequences for the lack of accountability at home complicate 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 and do point to the United States as an excuse to further shield themselves from the search for truth and justice.

The United States must ensure it does not return to past illegal policies of torture and cruelty; it must fully investigate credible allegations of abuse; it must prosecute those who authorize, order, or engage in acts of torture; it must provide torture survivors an effective right to a remedy; and it should continue to rehabilitate torture survivors worldwide. Taking such measures is not just an obligation under the Convention. They would also help the United States to regain global leadership against torture and cruel treatment.

We must act out of our responsibility to the Convention Against Torture and to our values.

Curt Goering is executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, a Minnesota-based international nongovernmental organization dedicated to healing survivors of torture.

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