(A translation of a June 26, 2004 article by Camille Bauer from l’Humanité)
Although this past Saturday was designated by the UN as a day to support victims of torture, mistreatment is growing everywhere as a result of America’s so-called “war against terrorism,” as the Abu Ghraib scandal demonstrated.
Prisoners stripped and bound, pyramids of bodies, sexual enactments: the photos of American soldiers’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners shocked the world. After the relative indifference which greeted the numerous condemnations by human rights organizations, these photos shed light on American practices in its “war against terrorism.” In the aftermath of the photos’ publication, disclosures followed thick and fast about the mistreatment inflicted on prisoners in Afghanistan, at Guantanamo, and about the memo which explained how the Bush administration attempted to avoid its national and international legal obligations with respect to torture. The memo even tried to justify the most physical of interrogations. We should take particular note of these events on the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. America’s acts show that, fifty years after the adoption, in 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the rhetoric of the so-called “war against terrorism” is a menace to the fight against torture.
However, the international community has acquired, over the course of the past several years, the means to fight against this practice. The birth of the International Criminal Court on July 1, 2002 allows, for the first time, for the neutral pursuit of the perpetrators of these crimes. Still in its infancy, the ICC is an advance over the UN Convention against Torture, which was adopted in 1984 and became effective in 1987. The 136 countries that ratified it committed themselves to adapt their legislation to the Convention’s requirements and to pursue the offenders. Yet, as Patrick Baudoin—the honorary president of the International Human Rights Federation—recently reminded us, “a convention is practically worthless without the possibility of sanctioning its offenders.” A government singled out by the Convention’s committee remains the sole arbiter of the consequences; and a number of offending States have not even bothered to respond, notes Théo Van Behoven, the current UN special rapporteur on torture.
In a similar vein, if an individual can theoretically submit a complaint to the UN Committee against Torture, this complaint must be accepted by the allegedly guilty state in order for an investigation to follow. In 2002, only 45 of the 128 singled-out countries “permitted the Committee to hear the complaints submitted by individuals.” In 2002, a non-obligatory protocol against torture was adopted—despite the opposition of China and the US—which allows for the inspection of detention centers of the Convention’s signatories. However most countries, including France, have yet to ratify this protocol.
Political considerations have always prevented the application of these anti-torture norms. In order to realize that the fight against torture is not a priority, one need only look at how Sudan escaped any condemnation this year from the UN Commission on Human Rights as the result of a motley alliance that included China, Cuba, Russia, South Africa, Senegal and India.
The refusal of several countries, including the US, China and Israel, to recognize the International Criminal Court also emphasizes this aversion to international law. This is particularly evident when the US pressures its allies not to prosecute America citizens before the ICC. This is a paradoxical position for a country that awards merits points to, or casts blame on, countries based on their human rights records.
Since September 11, 2001, the fight against torture has become more difficult. The objective of the so-called “war against terrorism” has resulted in a “de-emphasis on the constraining norms of human rights and an undermining of the still-fragile framework put in place since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” noted the World Organization against Torture as far back as 2002. Many countries that are not recognized for their overwhelming respect of human rights, such as Malaysia and Uzbekistan, have sought cover under the “war against terrorism.” But it is even more worrisome to see that “democratic” countries have begun to question whether the ban on torture is a necessity. Théo Van Behoven considers this to be “an erosion of the universal consensus on the absolute ban on torture.” In the American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, we see the destruction that this type of reasoning can cause.
The United States is largely responsible for the deterioration of international norms against torture; however that country is not the only offender. The UN issued a special report against Spain, which concluded that if torture is not exactly systematic, “the system, as it currently functions, leads towards torture, particularly in cases where detainees are held in secret for allegedly having engaged in terrorist activities.” This is symptomatic of the general climate that threatens the judicial cornerstone of the fight against torture. And Amnesty International has noted that, although the European Court of Human Rights is the only tribunal in which victims can bring suit, certain proposals currently under consideration may limit even this possibility.