By Michael Ratner and Sara Miles
As someone who has spent decades representing clients who have been tortured under dictatorships, in dirty wars and by lawless governments around the world, I'm having a rough week here at home. My friend Sister Dianna Ortiz, an Ursuline nun whom I represented after she'd been abducted, raped and tortured by security forces in Guatemala, told me she was having a hard time too. "Torture destroys trust," she said. "Since my torture, 16 years ago, I've tried to rebuild that trust, but now my government has shattered it yet again. Fear returns..."
Inside the Pentagon, officials are arguing with Vice President Dick Cheney and some of his aides about a whether a new set of Defense Department guidelines for interrogating suspected terrorists should prohibit the "cruel, humiliating, and degrading" treatment of prisoners. In the Congress, Sen. John McCain, with support from 89 colleagues, is pushing a separate measure to ban cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of any detainee in U.S. custody -- against veto threats from the White House and fierce opposition from Cheney and his new chief of staff, David Addington, who are maneuvering to exempt clandestine CIA activities from oversight. And reporters have uncovered a network of "black sites" in Eastern Europe and elsewhere -- secret detention camps run by the CIA, where suspects are being held and brutally interrogated.
The idea that torture could be so publicly defensible -- and the news that the United States is maintaining secret facilities in former Soviet-era prisons for torturing nameless and disappeared people -- fills me with shame and horror. And while it's encouraging that John McCain, who was himself tortured as a prisoner of war, wants to make it illegal to strap naked prisoners to boards and hold them under water, electrocute them or mock-execute them, it's profoundly depressing that the discourse about torture has come to this point.
Cruelty in war may be universal: but an international code acknowledging limits on cruelty has been, until now, a fundamental part of civilization. The Geneva Conventions, adopted in 1949, put it plainly: Even in war, all persons are to be treated "humanely"; "cruel treatment and torture and outrages upon personal dignity" are prohibited. The United States and countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, 192 in all, have agreed that freedom from torture, degradation, and cruel or inhuman treatment is one of the most basic of human rights, transcending national boundaries. As Judge Irving Kaufman of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1980 -- in a landmark case we at the Center for Constitutional Rights brought in a U.S. court against the Paraguayan general who tortured Joel Filartiga to death -- "for purposes of civil liability, the torturer has become like the pirate and slave trader before him hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind."
Changes since 9/11
Since 9/11, I've found myself swept up in defending basic human rights and the rule of law against a relentless onslaught by the Bush administration. We've brought suit on behalf of 500 nameless "John Doe" prisoners held at Guantánamo in defiance of the Geneva Conventions; we've fought the indefinite detention of American citizens; we're challenging the Defense Department and private contractors over the horrendous abuses at Abu Ghraib. We've uncovered terrible stories about cruelty and torture carried out by our country, like that of Maher Arar, an innocent Canadian citizen kidnapped and "rendered" to Syria by American forces, who was kept an underground cell for over 10 months and beaten for weeks on end with a thick cable. I represented three young men from England who were released from Guantánamo when it was finally proved they'd made false confessions -- after being stripped, hooded, isolated, chained to the floor for 12 hours at stifling temperatures and threatened by snarling dogs.
Yet despite victories in court, and rising political outrage from Republicans as well as Democrats, military lawyers and State Department officials as well as human-rights activists, it now seems that administration hard-liners are digging in.
How did we get to this point? Because the United States is bound by the Geneva Convention governing prisoners of war, and by the 1987 Convention Against Torture with its prohibitions against torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, McCain's legislation should not even be necessary.
Stay informed with our free news services:
|All news from SPIEGEL International||Twitter | RSS|
|All news from Under the Scope section||RSS|
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2005
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH