On June 26th, 2003 (United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture) the Bush white house issued its first public pledge not to torture terrorism suspects and to "lead by example" in the global fight against torture. The Department of Defense issued a similar statement, saying that anyone found to have broken the law in relation to the deaths of prisoners currently being investigated in Afghanistan would be prosecuted. There is currently a U.S. Army investigation underway into the deaths of two detainees at Bagram, which military pathologists ruled as homicides in March (one died of a heart attack, another of a blood clot in the lung). The death of a man in Asadabad (in Eastern Afghanistan) over the weekend of 20th-21st of June is also being investigated (no decision has been reached as to whether the cause of death was homicide).

"Cruel and unusual punishments" are prohibited by the Bill of Rights (Amendment VIII) and Articles 2 (torture) and 16 ("cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment") of the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Department of Defense has now specifically widened barred techniques to include that deemed unconstitutional in the United States. This includes such things as sleep deprivation, with-holding medication or forcing prisoners to stand in "stress positions".

Treatment of prisoners detained under the hubris of the War against Terrorism have previously been murky. The CIA base north of Bagram air base has especially been a point of contention, as have interrogations conducted jointly with other countries (such as Pakistan, which is very keen to help the U.S. fully in the battle against terrorism and therefore could be accused of being over-zealous). The Washington Post received several anonymous "tip-offs" from federal officials including the famous "If you're not violating someone's human rights you're not doing your job properly."

Human Rights Watch sent a letter to President Bush in December 2002 calling for an investigation into "stress and duress" techniques reportly used by the CIA at Bagram. It was alleged that the U.S. was also turning over detainees to states such as Jordan, Egypt and Morocco, which the State Department has criticised for using torture. The letter noted that "It is a violation of international law not only to use torture directly, but also to be complicit in torture committed by other governments." Although the "stress and duress" techniques were only alleged and there was also a legal argument over whether they would be permissable under international law (the European Court of Human Rights ruled similar practices by the British in Northern Ireland to be not torture in 1978, but were prohibited as "inhuman and degrading" practices), the Bush administration had issued no blanket opposition to the practices.

Human Rights Watch said they "welcome this important statement" and that the "Bush Administration deserves credit for the work it is doing to address the problem of torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment outside of the United States". They further acknolwedged that the demise of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein "brought to an end two regimes that used torture and cruel treatment on a massive scale".

Update: This issue has now, as I'm sure the reader is aware, returned to its previous murky state, with questions being asked and fingers pointed following the Abu Ghraib Prison abuse scandal.

Statement by the President

Today, on the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the United States declares its strong solidarity with torture victims across the world. Torture anywhere is an affront to human dignity everywhere. We are committed to building a world where human rights are respected and protected by the rule of law.

Freedom from torture is an inalienable human right. The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, ratified by the United States and more than 130 other countries since 1984, forbids governments from deliberately inflicting severe physical or mental pain or suffering on those within their custody or control. Yet torture continues to be practiced around the world by rogue regimes whose cruel methods match their determination to crush the human spirit. Beating, burning, rape, and electric shock are some of the grisly tools such regimes use to terrorize their own citizens. These despicable crimes cannot be tolerated by a world committed to justice.

Notorious human rights abusers, including, among others, Burma, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, and Zimbabwe, have long sought to shield their abuses from the eyes of the world by staging elaborate deceptions and denying access to international human rights monitors. Until recently, Saddam Hussein used similar means to hide the crimes of his regime. With Iraq's liberation, the world is only now learning the enormity of the dictator's three decades of victimization of the Iraqi people. Across the country, evidence of Baathist atrocities is mounting, including scores of mass graves containing the remains of thousands of men, women, and children and torture chambers hidden inside palaces and ministries. The most compelling evidence of all lies in the stories told by torture survivors, who are recounting a vast array of sadistic acts perpetrated against the innocent. Their testimony reminds us of their great courage in outlasting one of history's most brutal regimes, and it reminds us that similar cruelties are taking place behind the closed doors of other prison states.

The United States is committed to the world-wide elimination of torture and we are leading this fight by example. I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture and in undertaking to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment. I call on all nations to speak out against torture in all its forms and to make ending torture an essential part of their diplomacy. I further urge governments to join America and others in supporting torture victims' treatment centers, contributing to the UN Fund for the Victims of Torture, and supporting the efforts of non-governmental organizations to end torture and assist its victims.

No people, no matter where they reside, should have to live in fear of their own government. Nowhere should the midnight knock foreshadow a nightmare of state-commissioned crime. The suffering of torture victims must end, and the United States calls on all governments to assume this great mission.


Bush Administration Rules Out Using Cruel Treatment to Fight Terrorism A Joint Statement Concerning UN Torture Victims Recognition Day By Human Rights Organizations and Torture Victim Treatment Centers (June 26, 2003): http://www.humanrightswatch.org/press/2003/06/tortureday.htm

U.S. Pledges to Avoid Torture (Washington Post, June 27th, 2003): http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A37460-2003Jun26.html?nav=hptop_tb

CIA Interrogation Under Fire (Washington Post, December 28, 2002): http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A45609-2002Dec27¬Found=true

Statement by the President (June 26, 2003): http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/06/20030626-3.html