Human Rights First Statement on Executive Order Interpreting Geneva Conventions Common Article 3 as Applied to the CIA

The following statement can be attributed to Elisa Massimino, Washington Director, Human Rights First:

Torture and cruel treatment by U.S. personnel happened, in the first place, because the administration applied such a flexible interpretation of the laws and standards against abuse that they became practically meaningless. That is how the United States got to Abu Ghraib.

The administration fought to get Congress to pass a law equating Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions with the prohibition against cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005. Congress refused, because it feared that the administration would again interpret the legal bans in a way that would endanger the United States’ military personnel, now and in future wars.

Congress has reiterated, twice in the last two years, that the law absolutely prohibits torture and other forms of official cruelty. The interrogation techniques that have been authorized for the CIA program — the so-called “alternative set of techniques” — are prohibited under current law. Nothing in today’s Executive Order changes that.

But the Order fails to make clear whether interrogation techniques that had been authorized for use in the CIA program are still permitted. If the Order is interpreted by the CIA as authorization to use techniques such as waterboarding, stress positions, hypothermia, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation and isolation, it sends a powerful — and dangerous — message to the United States’ current and future enemies: that this country believes these techniques can lawfully be used against our own troops without violating Common Article 3. This is the reason why more than 50 retired generals and admirals, including several former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, urged Congress to reject the administration’s attempt to redefine the Geneva Conventions standard in this way. If the CIA uses this Executive Order as authorization for what Congress refused to permit, then Congress will have to act again. As Senator John McCain, one of the sponsors of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 cautioned when the Act was passed, “In interpreting the conventions in this manner, the President is bounded by the conventions themselves. Nothing in this bill gives the President the authority to modify the conventions or our obligations under those treaties. That understanding is at the core of this legislation.”


Human Rights First and Physicians for Human Rights’ forthcoming report on the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” examines the medical consequences of those techniques and concludes that they are prohibited under existing law.


Published on July 20, 2007


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