The recent release of a US Senate committee’s report on CIA interrogation methods during the War on Terror has sent shockwaves around the world. Detailing the extent and sheer brutality of the enhanced interrogation techniques used during the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme after 9/11, it is a devastating exposé of the US attitude to fundamental human rights during a desperately dark era.
The US and its allies complicit in its illegal rendition, secret detention and torture programme are now busily proclaiming that the torture described in the report was wrong, shameful and now a thing of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We must not forget the 136 detainees remaining in Guantanamo Bay, who are still being tortured and held indefinitely without trial.
For them, the era of abuse and injustice described in the report is far from over – and hopes of an end to the facility’s nightmarish legal story are faint indeed.
Open and shut
Prior to his election, the US president, Barack Obama, vowed to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and, in fact, in January 2009, he signed an executive order mandating that other venues for the detainees be found.
To date, he has been devastatingly unsuccessful – largely thanks to the persistent blocking of his requests by Congress.
However, there are rumours that Obama is planning to issue another executive order for the closure of Guantanamo Bay that would sidestep the bans imposed by lawmakers in Congress on bringing the detainees to the US in the event of the camp’s closure.
But even if Obama does take a bold step like that, it’s hard to imagine how one could come to terms with the injustice of suffering years of torture while imprisoned outside the rule of law.
The release of the torture report comes at a time when the Obama administration is currently battling a court order, which his administration seeks to overturn, from a US federal judge who has called on the administration to make public videos of Guantanamo inmates being force-fed – an act which has been condemned by the UN as torture.
Gruesome descriptions of the suffering inflicted upon inmates on hunger strike has gained much attention and forms part of a very long list of the systematic violation of human rights at the detention facility since its opening in 2002.
The US has ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which not only categorically forbids it from practising torture but also requires it to prevent and hold accountable any individuals who are involved in these particular kinds of human rights violations.
Hence the sorry saga of the US authorities’ efforts to exempt Guantanamo’s inmates from the law.
In seeking to avoid condemnation and ensure that these heinous acts were somehow “legal” from the start, George W Bush’s administration sought to redefine torture to exclude some of its favourite techniques, including psychological torture and waterboarding.
This was done by narrowing the definition to include only suffering “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”.
Similarly, in order to sidestep its legal obligations under the Geneva Conventions, the United States defined al-Qaeda members as “unlawful enemy combatants” without prisoner-of-war status.
That meant individuals subjected to torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment were understood to no longer be protected by the rights and protections enshrined in Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions, which would hold the US accountable for charges of war crimes.
Guantanamo has also come in for criticism in relation to the rights of the child and the treatment of child soldiers because of 15-year-old detainee Omar Khadr, who was imprisoned there for eight years. But of course, the United States is one of only three countries in the world (along with Somalia and South Sudan) who have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
There is one piece of international human rights law to which the US is legally bound and out of which it cannot easily wriggle (linguistically speaking). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law, to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Of the total of 779 inmates ever detained at Guantanamo Bay only nine have been convicted of any crime and last year, the U.S. government identified 46 individuals on an “indefinite detainee” list – people who are thought to be too dangerous to release or move, but who cannot be tried in a civilian or military court.
As long as Guantanamo Bay is still operating – and as long as its detainees are subjected to torture and unlawfully deprived of their various rights enshrined in international human rights and humanitarian law – any apologies from leaders in the US or its allies for the findings of the torture report cannot be taken seriously.