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US: Torture Treaty Shift Significant but Inadequate

Treaty Prohibitions Apply Wherever State Has ‘Effective Control’

(Geneva) – A US statement on compliance with the Convention against Torture on November 12, 2014, improves on previous US positions on the treaty’s application but falls short of international obligations, Human Rights Watch said today. The US is appearing for its regular review before the United Nations Committee Against Torture on November 12-13 in Geneva.

Ahead of the review, Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental organizations wrote to President Barack Obama to urge him to reject the position advanced by the administration of George W. Bush that certain obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment only applied within US territory.

“While the Obama administration is distancing itself from discredited Bush-era interpretations of the Convention against Torture, it is still unwilling to accept its full obligations under the treaty,” said Laura Pitter, national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, who is attending the US review in Geneva. “The US should explicitly accept that the treaty applies anywhere the US exercises ‘effective control,’ including any detention centers overseas.”

The US statement takes the important step of rejecting the Bush-era interpretation of its obligations under article 16 of the convention, Human Rights Watch said. Article 16 requires governments to prevent cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. However, the Obama administration took the position that its obligations under both article 16 and other provisions with similar jurisdictional language only apply where “the US government controls as a governmental authority.” It stated that it considers the US to have such control at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and on US ships and aircraft. The White House statement also rejected the Bush administration position that treaty obligations are suspended in times of war, specifically saying they do apply.

The “governmental authority” language inappropriately limits the scope of US obligations inconsistent with authoritative interpretations of the convention by the Committee Against Torture, which monitors implementation of the treaty. The committee has repeatedly stated that obligations apply wherever any government has “effective control.” The US interpretation would appear to exempt it from responsibility for preventing cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in detention facilities the previous administration operated in other countries, such as Poland and Afghanistan.

During its review on November 12, the UN committee pressed the US on this issue, asking specifically whether the US interpreted the treaty as applying to temporary detention facilities. The US will have an opportunity to answer the committee’s questions on the second day of the review.

“The carefully limited language does little to allay concerns that the US is looking for wiggle room in terms of how it applies treaty obligations outside US borders,” Pitter said.

The review so far has covered a wide array of other important concerns about US compliance with its obligations under the Convention against Torture. The committee questioned the US on why those alleging claims of torture in US detention had not been able to obtain redress in US courts; why the US continues to classify information related to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’s torture program to such a degree that victims cannot raise complaints about their treatment to any type of adjudicative body; and why the only US criminal investigation into the use of torture by the CIA appears to have not interviewed any victims of torture as part of its inquiry.

The committee also questioned the US delegation extensively about confinement within the United States, questioning its widespread use of prolonged solitary confinement and other forms of isolation, the placement of youth in adult jails and prisons, the steps the US has taken to reduce sexual assault in prisons, and the United States’ increasing use of detention for immigrant families.


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