Wendy Patten, U.S. Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, spoke today at a press conference on Capitol Hill on the Bush Administration’s abusive practice of transferring a person to a country where he or she is likely to be tortured. Ms. Patten criticized the use of diplomatic assurances – unenforceable promises from governments that they will not torture or mistreat a particular person – as the basis for transferring suspects to the custody of governments widely known to engage in torture. Human Rights Watch urges the Congress to enact legislation to stop this practice and ensure full compliance with U.S. treaty obligations and international human rights standards.
The current practice of so-called “extraordinary rendition” is an affront to the fundamental human right not to be subjected to torture. This prohibition is absolute. Just as governments cannot torture people, they cannot send people to countries where they are likely to be tortured. Rendition to torture is the legal and moral equivalent of engaging in torture directly.
President Bush has said that the United States does not hand people over to countries that practice torture. Yet the cases of rendition that have come to light stand in stark contrast to that claim. Persons suspected of terrorist activity have been transferred by the United States to countries where torture is common, such as Syria, Egypt, and Jordan.
A central device used by the Bush Administration in rendering people to countries with well-documented records of torture is to obtain diplomatic assurances. These assurances are formal promises, either written or verbal, from the receiving government that it will not subject the detainee to torture or ill-treatment.
Assurances have been used not to satisfy U.S. legal obligations, but rather to circumvent them. They are unenforceable promises from governments that routinely flout their most basic human rights obligations by engaging in systematic torture. It confounds reason to claim that assurances from governments that commonly use torture and deny that practice will provide an adequate safeguard. Indeed, recently both CIA Director Goss and Attorney General Gonzales have acknowledged that the U.S. government has only a limited capacity to enforce assurances once a person is transferred to the custody of another government. In short, assurances are an attempt to put a veneer of legality on a policy that undermines the legal and moral obligations of the United States not to send people to countries where they risk being tortured.
Not only is it obvious that diplomatic assurances from governments that use torture are unreliable, but we now know that assurances have in fact been violated by governments to which suspects have been transferred. Perhaps the best example is that of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian origin. In 2002, he was seized by U.S. authorities while transiting New York and sent to Syria, where he endured nearly a year of brutal treatment, including beatings with electrical cords.
In November, 2003, President Bush condemned Syria for leaving its people a legacy of repression and torture. How is it that the United States can condemn Syrian oppression yet transfer a person to the hands of Syrian jailers? The U.S. government received assurances from Syria that Arar would not be mistreated. Diplomatic assurances are a fig leaf, an empty promise from a government that the United States knows well does not respect the law. The United States cannot continue to justify its rendition practices based on the specious claim that empty promises from governments that torture make it legal.
For this reason, we support efforts by the Congress, led by Representative Markey in the House of Representatives, to put a stop to renditions to torture and, as part of that vital effort, to prevent the Bush Administration from papering over its illegal conduct with diplomatic assurances from governments that torture.