Global Policy Forum

UN Committee Could Investigate US, Britain

Deutsche Welle
May 8, 2004

The UN Committee Against Torture is currently meeting in Geneva to discuss whether member states have abided by the Geneva Convention. Experts say the Iraq torture charges could become an issue at the meeting.

The string of photos released by the media last week shocked the world. They showed pictures of naked Iraqi prisoners forced into degrading poses, sometimes simulating explicit sexual positions and sometimes being force to wear women's underwear. In one photo, a man is held on a dog leash by a female prison guard. The images have damaged the credibility of the United States around the world and forced both President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to publicly apologize, with the latter going so far as to describe the incidents as a "catastrophe" for the United States.

Now the U.S. faces the prospect of having to answer to the international community, which has the opportunity to raise the issue at a meeting of the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which runs through May 21. The group is responsible for determining whether the countries that have signed on to the Geneva Convention, which bans torture, are abiding by the agreement.

134 signatories include U.S. and Britain

Countries that have signed on to the Geneva Convention are required to protect prisoners and to take action against violations of the act. That's all part of the UN convention against torture, which was enacted in 1987. To date, 134 countries have ratified the agreement, including the United States and Britain. The UN Torture Committee issues periodic reports measuring countries' adherence to the treaty.

Mark Thomsen is the president of the Geneva Association for Torture Prevention. In his opinion, the convention is still strong and the committee a good instrument for monitoring it. "It's a body of experts chosen by the states parties to assist the state's parties to implement their obligations under the convention," he says. "So they don't have the force of a court to insist on the states to implement it, but they bring out public reports, they can make commentaries and statements which in effect put pressure on the states. "

In extraordinary situations, the committee can also break with its previously selected review countries and instead deal with special cases -- a proceeding that Mark Thomsen believes will be applied following the allegations and photographic evidence that U.S. soldiers have tortured Iraqi prisoners. In these instances, the acts of the Geneva Convention can be invoked. "Because both the United Kingdom and the U.S. are states parties, it does apply, even through Iraq is not a state party to the convention," Thomsen explained. "The USA and U.K. as occupying powers are enforcing their jurisdiction and are, therefore, responsible for what is happening in Iraq." In other words, the committee has the right to investigate the claims against the U.S. and Britain.

A political challenge

But in the past, there have been few events where such proceedings have been opened. And whether or not the committee will order an investigation into the U.S. military is an open question, since the 10 committee members must take a unanimous decision to do so. That consensus could be difficult, since the United States, China and Russia are all members of the committee. There's a good chance the Americans would be unwilling to agree to an investigation if China and Russia were the main countries calling for it, since both countries have also been accused of committing torture in numerous instances.

But Thomsen says the U.S. would be well advised to cooperate with the UN organizations in an effort to demonstrate its true desire to resolve the cases. "Any act of torture should be condemned and those commit it should be punished," he says. "We therefore hope that that is what will now happen that there will be a thorough investigation and that the people who have committed these acts will be appropriately punished."

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