Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the “Convention on Torture and on Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.” Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1984, it was enacted on June 26, 1987, following ratification by twenty national governments. Today the Convention has 147 signatories.
As an international treaty, the Convention is the law of the land in all countries participating in it, including the United States of America. One of its chief supporters was then-US President Ronald Reagan. In a message to the Senate on May 20, 1988, Reagan stated:
The United States participated actively and effectively in the negotiation of the Convention. It marks a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment. Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.
In a new century, where terms such as “waterboarding,” “extraordinary rendition,” “drone strike” and “extra-judicial killing” have become about as unremarkable to most citizens as “reality TV,” I thought it might be interesting to go back and look at what we signed onto a generation ago.
In Article I, the Convention stipulates that
the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity
Article II specifies that
1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.
2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
3. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.
Not only are signatories prohibited from practicing torture, and of permitting it to occur under their own jurisdictions, they must also avoid becoming a party to torture occurring beyond their borders. Article III states:
1. No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.
2. For the purpose of determining whether there are such grounds, the competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.
1. Each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law. The same shall apply to an attempt to commit torture and to an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture.
2. Each State Party shall make these offences punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature. (Article IV)
The entire Convention is an eye-opening read. Too bad American officials gave up reading it long ago – except perhaps on the lookout for loopholes, of which there are very few. While the Obama Administration (which has yet to close the Guantanamo Bay isolation camp along with numerous other "black sites" across the planet) has failed to prosecute former President George W. Bush and his staff for their use of torture, rendition, and other egregious human rights violations in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a tribunal conducted in Malaysia of all places last month returned a verdict of guilty against the former Administration on the following charges:
(b) Creating, authorizing and implementing a regime of Cruel, Inhumane, and Degrading Treatment;
(c) Violating Customary International Law;
(d) Violating the Convention Against Torture 1984;
(e) Violating the Geneva Convention III and IV 1949;
(f) Violating the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention of 1949.
(g) Violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Charter.
The Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal determined unanimously that
former U.S. President George W. Bush and his associates namely Richard Cheney, former U.S. Vice President, Donald Rumsfeld, former Defence Secretary, Alberto Gonzales, then Counsel to President Bush, David Addington, then General Counsel to the Vice-President, William Haynes II, then General Counsel to Secretary of Defence, Jay Bybee, then Assistant Attorney General, and John Choon Yoo, former Deputy Assistant Attorney-General guilty as charged and convicted as war criminals for Torture and Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment of the Complainant War Crime Victims.
It seems that Malaysia can still host a hearing of this kind, but don’t expect any action to come from the US government when it comes to torture, the Geneva Conventions, and the Nuremberg Charter. Today we’re engaged in “a new kind of war,” a “generational war,” where such protections, in the words of convicted war criminal Alberto Gonzales, have been rendered “quaint,” and where the instrument of choice for dealing with troublemakers has now become extrajudicial execution via drone strike at the President’s pleasure.
In other words, when it comes to basic human rights and human dignity, America's political class has moved on since 1987. How about you?