A US delegation to Geneva was grilled by the UN Committee Against Torture today on the country's record of inhuman and degrading treatment in contexts as wide-ranging as its detainee programs overseas, law enforcement practices at home, and its treatment of immigrants, inmates, and LGBT people — among others.
The delegation's appearance in Geneva was part of a two-day process to review US compliance with the Convention Against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the US ratified in 1994.
It was the first such review during President Obama's administration — who has gone to great lengths to distance himself from the abuses of the George W. Bush administration, particularly with regards to interrogation practices used during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Much of the attention surrounding the delegation's testimony had to do with wartime incidents — as well as with clarifications in regards to a Bush-era reading of US commitment to the convention that claimed "exceptions" to its application overseas and in conflict.
But questions of domestic inhuman and degrading treatment were also raised, including on the police killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August and other instances of police brutality, militarization, and impunity.
US domestic incarceration came under scrutiny as well, with questions on punitive practices like solitary confinement, the death penalty, and the detention of undocumented immigrants, as well as summary deportations. Also on the table were controversial practices like conversion therapy used against LGBT youth in the US, the denial of essential reproductive health care, and other ill treatment of women.
The UN just asked the US Gov— Thenjiwe McHarris (@ThenjiweTM) November 12, 2014
Many of the concerns were raised by some 70 representatives of US civil society, which submitted more than 65 alternative reports to the committee, many of them coordinated by the US Human Rights Network. The group also coordinated a delegation from Ferguson, which included the parents of Michael Brown as well as local activists who testified privately on Tuesday along with other civil society representatives.
"There's a wide range of groups who are all here and obviously they're here cause they're interested in calling international attention to the issues that they are raising," Ejim Dike, the network's executive director, said in a call with reporters after today's hearings. "All of us are collectively hoping that strong international support will put pressure on our political leaders in the US in much the same way that the international human rights community is called to put pressure on other governments when they are violating or not doing enough to protect against human rights violations in those countries."
US Torture Overseas
Speaking before the commission today, US officials reiterated the administration's condemnation of torture and acknowledged that the torture treaty applies to "certain areas beyond" its sovereign territory, and more specifically to places the US government "controls as a governmental authority." Department of State Acting Legal Adviser Mary McLeod identified such places as Guantanamo and US registered ships and aircraft.
"The US is proud of its record as a leader in respecting, promoting, and defending human rights and the rule of law, both at home and around the world," she said. "But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, we regrettably did not always live up to our own values, including those reflected in the Convention. As President Obama has acknowledged, we crossed the line and we take responsibility for that."
McLeod said that an executive order signed by Obama the day after he took office was "clear" and directed all officials to rely only on the US Army Field Manual in conducting interrogations in armed conflict.
"We believe that torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment are forbidden in all places, at all times, with no exceptions," State Department assistant secretary Tom Malinowski said in his statement before the UN. "The legal and moral argument against torture would be dispositive under any circumstances. It would not matter to that argument if torture were effective; our experience also taught that it is not."
Human rights observers welcomed the delegation's reaffirmation that the convention against torture was not limited to US territory — as the Bush administration had argued in the past — but said the statements fell short of claiming torture was banned everywhere.
"We're pleased that the Obama administration has affirmed the global ban on torture and cruelty, but it must go a step further and clarify that its treaty obligations apply to all official US conduct, especially where the US has effective control abroad," ACLU Human Rights Program Director Jamil Dakwar, who is attending events in Geneva, said in a statement on Wednesday.
Dakwar and others took issue with the reference to the Army Field Manual and specifically with its Appendix M, added in 2006, allowing interrogation techniques — such as sleep deprivation and extreme isolation — which are universally recognized as torture. These are not prohibited by Obama's executive order.
"So what we do know, and we know very little factually, is that the CIA and special forces can still run secret, short-term detention sites," Ramzi Kassem, an associate professor of law at the City University of New York, told VICE News last month. "And within those secret prisons they can interrogate people as far as the Army Field Manual allows and the Army Field Manual allows certain forms of torture." Kassem, with his students, has also represented US prisoners at Guantanamo, Bagram Air Base, and "black site" detention centers around the world.
In Thursday's session, UN officials are expected to follow up from the US delegation statements and ask for further clarification about this and other loopholes.
Critics also pointed to the fact that Guantanamo is still open — five years after president Obama pledged to close it down. "I cannot believe Guantanamo is still open," Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen who was wrongfully detained by the US for five years, in Kandahar and Guantanamo, told reporters on a call today after testifying before the committee.
Kurnaz, who was handed over to the Americans after being arrested in Pakistan when he was 19, described being beaten, hung from his hands, and water boarded while in Kandahar, and later kept in solitary confinement at Guantanamo.
"President Obama may have banished many of the abusive interrogation practices that were done to me, but torture continues at Guantanamo," he said, adding that many of the detainees still there "are as innocent as I was but they have been enduring torture at Guantanamo for over 12 years because of their nationalities, not because of anything they have done."
"If the US is a democracy, how could it create these secret prisons without any law?" he asked. "How could it torture people and how could it not punish people who have committed this torture?"
Ferguson and Police Violence
On Tuesday, the parents of Mike Brown also testified before the convention as part of a series of testimonies by members of US civil society.
"What you decide here may save lives," Michael Brown Sr. said in an emotional testimony. "No father wants to see his child dead in the streets…I would like to see the United States make a commitment to address racial discrimination in a comprehensive and coordinated manner."
"What officer Darren Wilson did to my son should be considered torture," Brown said on a media call on Wednesday.
"I hope this trip brings the eyes of everyone to let them know what really goes on in small-town Ferguson," Brown's mother, Leslie McSpadden, said on the same call. "We really need the help, we don't have any trust in the local authorities and that's the big reason why we are here in the UN."
But Brown's parents' testimony before the committee — part of an initiative local activists dubbed "Ferguson to Geneva" — was not the only one highlighting issues of police abuse in the US.
"What happened in Ferguson is something that unfortunately happens across the country on a daily basis," Dike, of the human rights network said. "Police violence, police acting with impunity and really criminalizing the existence of black and brown people in the US has to qualify as cruel, inhuman, degrading and in some cases torture."
Another group testifying against police racism and abuse in the US was "We Charge Genocide" — a delegation of eight black and brown youth from Chicago accusing the city's police department of systematic discrimination against them.
"In Chicago, the police are a source of violence and are completely unaccountable," Asha Rosa, a member of the delegation, testified at Tuesday's hearing. "Only 19 out of 10,000 complaints filed against highest offending officers were met with meaningful penalties."
The group walked out of the hearing after US government representatives in attendance pushed back against We Charge Genocide's claim "that there is no real mechanism for pointing to the police as a source of violence or for accountability."
"We were insulted by their suggestion that 330 police in the past five years being prosecuted could even begin to rectify the violence Black and Brown communities experience at the hands of the police and the state, considering that there were 300+ taserings by the police in Chicago alone in one year," the group later explained in a statement. "We were not accepting any apologies or any excuses."
US saying that they— Page May (@may20p) November 11, 2014
US officials were also asked to address issues like the sexual abuse of children by priests and why conversion therapy is still being practiced on LGBT youth despite the fact that it has been condemned by every major medical organization. The UN committee also asked the delegation about the lack of sexual and reproductive health services for immigrant women in detention facilities, as well as the shackling of pregnant women in custody.
In testimonies submitted to the UN body, reproductive rights groups had particularly highlighted the treatment of migrant women in detention facilities and discriminatory state and federal policies resulting in the denial of essential reproductive health care and other ill treatment of women — citing for instance a bill that led to the closure of approximately half of the legal abortion clinics in Texas.
"No woman in the US should be denied essential reproductive health care and endure ill-treatment because of her gender, ethnicity, immigration status, or disability," Katrina Anderson of the Center Center for Reproductive Rights said in a statement welcoming the committee's questions. "The US must be held accountable to fulfill all women's human rights and take the concrete steps necessary to combat the many forms of discrimination that leave far too many women at risk of torture and cruel treatment."
The UN committee, made up of 10 independent experts, is responsible for reviewing the compliance of all 156 countries that have ratified the convention against torture.
"It's important to stress that we expect others to hold us to the same high standards to which we hold them," Malinowski, of the State Department, said in his opening statement. "And we do not claim to be perfect."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter:@alicesperi