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Civil Rights Group Appeals to United Nations Over U.S. Torture

by Michelle Chen

Looking for new ways to induce the Bush administration into curbing its severe treatment of suspected terrorists and insurgents, the ACLU has turned to an international body, hoping more global pressure will make a difference.

Apr. 6, 2005 – In an effort to focus world attention on the treatment of prisoners held by the United States government in the so-called "War on Terror," a leading American civil rights group sent a delegation to address the highest international body overseeing human rights concerns.

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Appealing to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) for a resolution to condemn the interrogation and detainment practices Washington has made policy in the post-9/11 period, representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union say they are attending in order to form a new front of sorts by which their organization -- usually focused on domestic strategies -- can put pressure on the US government.

This year’s session of the Commission in Geneva, which will last until April 22, is the first such meeting since the Abu Ghraib scandal exposed the abuse of Iraqi detainees by the US military. The 53-member Commission will deliberate with more than 3,000 representatives from national governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The ACLU, historically known as a domestic advocacy organization, is going before the international forum with the goal of bringing US anti-terrorism practices into the light of both international jurisdiction and public scrutiny.

In a statement issued on Monday, Jamil Dakwar, an attorney with ACLU’s Human Rights Working Group representing the organization in Geneva, said, "No country is above the law, and the United States should not be permitted to violate fundamental human rights in the name of national security."

The ACLU’s presence at Geneva indicates a growing convergence between international human rights movements and domestic campaigns indicting the US for abusive tactics in its so-called "War on Terror."

In the organization’s official statement before the Commission, the ACLU urged the members of the body to pressure the US "to take effective measures to prevent acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in all places under its control and jurisdiction … and to hold accountable those officials who encouraged, ordered, sanctioned, or permitted such acts."

The ACLU also called for investigations into the treatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Cuba, and in as-yet undisclosed detention areas. Such inquiries, the group suggested, should be conducted by "special [representatives], independent experts, and chairpersons of the working groups" under the UNCHR.

In a phone interview from Geneva, Dakwar expressed optimism that due to "both international and domestic pressure," the US government is "at least showing an intent of cooperating with some of the international mechanisms."

Manfred Nowak, the Commission’s special envoy, or "rapporteur," on torture -- one of several UN experts charged with investigating violations of international human rights conventions -- reported during a public briefing session that US representatives were engaging in negotiations to open the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba for investigation, possibly as soon as this year.

The so-called "Guantánamo detainees," some who have been held for more than three years in connection with terrorism-related investigations, have been stripped of due process rights and reportedly subjected to severe mistreatment. International organizations, including the Council of Europe and the International Committee of the Red Cross, have joined US-based advocacy groups in condemning the detentions. Though more than 200 detainees have been released or transferred to the custody of other governments, there remain approximately 540 detainees at Guantánamo, according to a March 12 Department of Defense report.

If granted access to the detention center, UN special rapporteurs could conduct independent investigations on whether the US military is violating international human rights laws. Dakwar said that opening the US-run detention center to an international probe would be an unprecedented sign that the US is yielding to public pressure, from within its borders and abroad, on torture-related controversies.

Dakwar noted that although the US has made overtures in the past to UN officials about granting access to the Cuba military base, the talks at this year’s session suggest the US is more willing than before to cooperate with the Commission’s oversight authority.

"It wasn’t just another meeting," commented Dakwar. However, he also acknowledged that US officials could be using the Geneva talks "to just create the expectation … that they will allow access" in hopes of diverting pressure from the international community.

Beyond Guantánamo, Dakwar added that the ACLU will continue their campaign "to open all US facilities, no matter where they are" to investigation under the same international protocols that apply to other countries.

Domestic Advocacy in the International Arena

The ACLU’s presence at Geneva indicates a growing convergence between international human rights movements and domestic campaigns indicting the US for abusive tactics in its so-called "War on Terror."

The organization says it views the international community as a useful forum for torture and detention issues, parallel to the "traditional" battlegrounds for domestic civil rights groups -- the US courts.

At the same time, human rights groups known for their international activism, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have complemented the work of domestic organizations like the ACLU with campaigns that target the War on Terror through the lens of human rights laws like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Geneva Conventions.

"Increasingly," said ACLU human rights attorney Steven Watt, "we’re seeing scope for the human rights framework to add something to civil rights and civil liberties issues," especially because international standards tend to be "more protective" than US laws.

The ACLU’s primary mission in Geneva is to advocate for a UNCHR resolution reaffirming international prohibitions against torture and arbitrary detention, which, according to Watt, would "disavow any of the statements made by the United States administration in the war against terrorism to the contrary."

The mandate of a resolution, which would require a majority vote to pass, would empower the Commission to authorize investigations by the special rapporteurs and sub-agencies like the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The ACLU’s previous cooperation with the Working Group led to a UN statement in March on the "arbitrary detention" of Algerian national Benemar Benatta. Benatta has languished in US custody since September 12, 2001, though all criminal charges against him have been dropped.

Torture and detention issues rank high on the Commission’s agenda this year. In his remarks at the start of the session, Commission Chairman Makarim Wibisono of Indonesia raised concerns over preserving human rights in the post-September 11 era, declaring that "terrorist acts violate the core tenets of human rights … Yet, [the] legitimate fight to defeat terrorism and terrorists must, at all times, remain in full conformity with these same tenets," including "the principles of due process of law, non-discrimination and religious tolerance."

UN officials have for years expressed reservations about the US government’s anti-terrorism tactics. In December 2001, seventeen UN-affiliated experts urged governments to "strike a fair balance between, on the one hand, the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, and on the other hand, legitimate concerns over national and international security."

The Bush administration has wavered on the international legal implications of terrorism-related detentions. In a 2002 executive order, President Bush declared that international terrorism necessitated "new thinking in the law of war, but thinking that should nevertheless be consistent with the principles of Geneva." Yet with the backing of the Department of Justice, Bush exempted detainees from the protections of the Geneva Conventions, including provisions against physical and psychological abuse.

Activities at the current session of the UNCHR suggest that tensions between the US and the international community have only escalated in recent months. At a public meeting on Monday with session participants, Leandro Despouy, the special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, expressed frustration that UN agents have been unable to access major US detention sites and warned that the questionable legality of the military adjudication system for detainees could weaken the authority and independence of the US judiciary.

UN Action Looks to Influence Torture Policies Worldwide

The ACLU anticipates that the impact of a UNCHR resolution on torture, like the effects of the Bush administration’s global anti-terrorism tactics, would resonate in the US and throughout the world. The organization hopes a resolution would counterbalance what it sees as a widening precedent, modeled on Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, of countries mistreating prisoners and dismissing international legal frameworks. Watt said the US has become a "standard setter" for countries whose human rights abuses have previously drawn US criticism.

Human rights advocates also argue that aggressive anti-terrorism policies may backfire by giving political leverage to nations with poor human rights records.

Dakwar referred to a recent speech by the Syrian Ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha, on plans to withdraw troops from Lebanon, in which the diplomat remarked glibly, "We want to make anything similar … to your Guantánamo Bay a part of our past."

Such statements from foreign governments, said Dakwar, show that questions of torture and detention undermine the Bush administration’s international credibility by revealing the hypocrisy behind its purported efforts to "be a beacon for freedom and liberty and human rights."

Currently, despite a few signs that human rights advocacy is making an impression on the US government, it is far from clear whether the Bush administration would change its policies to heed an international resolution, or allow outside investigators to examine detention centers notorious for their opacity. But the ACLU hopes that in the long term, any international action against US detention policies would at least establish greater transparency and accountability on an international level.

Watt believes that even if administration officials proved resistant to a UNCHR resolution, it would nonetheless engage in an international dialogue and thus "have to, in black and white, justify what their positions are." If the US were compelled to lay bare its reasons for not cooperating, said Watt, its rebuff would be "a clear indicator to the international community that the US had something to hide."

Whether or not international efforts to sway US policymakers succeed, in Watt’s view, the political climate of the current UNCHR session reveals that after years of chaffing against counter-terrorism policies, US-based activists and the international community are now beginning to align on an agenda of universal rights.

"If the United States starts to undermine standards that have been set over the last 50 or 60 years," he said, "that’s a real turning point in the international human rights movement."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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