Global Policy Forum

Bush Administration:


By Niko Kyriakou

October 29, 2005

Echoing recent comments by White House officials, a U.S. government report submitted to the United Nations last Friday bears a message that the brutal treatment of people held in U.S. military custody abroad is and should be legal.

The report, which was submitted to the UN's Human Rights Committee and is designed to document U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), fails to mention a number of U.S violations of the treaty that took place off of U.S. soil in places like Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, human rights groups say. "This is not a sufficient report," said Ann Fagan Ginger, Executive Director of the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute based in Berkeley, California.

"The government continues its arrogant and illegal refusal to report major Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and elsewhere in Iraq and Afghanistan," she told OneWorld Friday.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was signed by the U.S. in 1992 and outlaws torture or degrading treatment. The treaty mandates signatories to submit reports on their compliance with the treaty every five years to the Human Rights Committee, which reviews reports and presents its findings to the United Nations. The U.S. reports were many years overdue.

While numerous rights organizations insist that the ICCPR applies to military detention facilities abroad, the U.S. report argues that the treaty only applies on U.S. soil.

Staking out a similar position in domestic law, President George W. Bush recently promised to use his veto power for the first time ever to stop an amendment proposed earlier this month by Senator John McCain that would outlaw cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of people held by the U.S. military anywhere in the world. The amendment, attached to the $445 billion defense bill for 2006, has not yet passed a House vote.

McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam Conflict, said in a statement:

"We are Americans, and we hold ourselves to humane standards of treatment of people no matter how evil or terrible they may be. To do otherwise undermines our security, but it also undermines our greatness as a nation."

While McCain's proposal would, in effect, remedy many U.S. violations of the civil and political rights treaty, rights groups are not waiting around for domestic law to do what they say is already done by international law.

"This is yet another example of how the U.S. government is trying to deflect responsibility for its international obligations," Jamil Dakwar, staff attorney in the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) national legal department, told OneWorld.

At an hour-long hearing to discuss the report held at the State Department yesterday, the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, Global Rights, and several smaller organizations railed the U.S. report. Dakwar, who attended the event, said that "NGOs that were present at the meeting unanimously expressed their disappointment at the U.S. government decision to ignore its extraterritorial obligations under the treaty."

Some groups, he said, were concerned about the government's lack of consultation with domestic NGOs in the drafting of the report, which "ordinarily should happen," he said. Other groups criticized the report for merely describing laws without substantive analysis on how the rights of citizens were impacted. The State Department, for its part, held to its argument that the U.S. has never accepted the application of the treaty beyond its borders, affirming that this "has nothing to do with the post 9-11 policies," Dakwar said.

But rights groups retorted that the Human Rights Committee has already reached numerous decisions in which the treaty was deemed applicable to countries occupying foreign lands, according to Dakwar.

The treaty itself, he says, states that its jurisdiction reaches into any place where the signatory country has "effective control," which Dakwar insists includes not only Guantanamo--where the U.S. has "full control"--but also military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dakwar also voiced personal concern about whether the U.S. position on extraterritorial inapplicability would render future discussions by the Human Rights Committee (HRC) and also the Committee Against Torture meaningless.

"The HRC is one of the most important UN treaty bodies when it comes to setting standards and interpreting human rights treaties," Dakwar said.

"Unfortunately these committees do not have enforcement measures. They do not have policing. They do not even have the ability to refer this to another UN body such as the Security Council for violating the treaty--but they do have the process of review, which is embarrassing enough for many countries," he said. The Human Rights Committee said it would postpone the creation of a list of issues regarding the U.S. report until its next session, in March, and that it would further delay its concluding observations until the following session in July.

Mylí¨ne Bidault, secretariat of the Human Rights Committee told OneWorld that, "the Human Rights Committee as such will not comment on the USA reports before examining them in accordance with its own proceedings." But, a request made by the committee last April for NGOs to submit documentation on U.S. abuses that occurred outside U.S. borders, implies that the international body may not agree with U.S. interpretations of ICCPR's applicability.

Earlier this month Human Rights First (HRF) reported that more than 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody since 2002. The group's research indicates that to date, the Army has identified 27 of these cases that were suspected or confirmed homicides, and at least seven cases in which detainees were tortured to death.

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