United States Clarifies Position on Extraterritorial Application of Torture Convention

Geneva – Human Rights First welcomes the U.S. government’s efforts to clarify the scope of the application of the Convention Against Torture.  Today in Geneva, the Committee Against Torture asked the U.S. delegation charged with reporting on U.S. compliance with the convention whether the U.S. government considers itself bound by the treaty beyond the territory of the United States.  The National Security Council issued a statement promising that the delegation would affirm tomorrow that Article 16, which requires countries to work to eradicate cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, in some instances applies abroad, and that the Convention applies in times of war.

“This is an important step toward making clear that the prohibition on torture and other official cruelty is not just a policy but a legal obligation—one that the United States carries out when it acts beyond the water’s edge,“ said Human Rights First’s Sharon McBride, who is attending the review in Geneva.  “By affirming that it is bound by the treaty beyond its own borders and during times of war, the United States not only makes clear to its own personnel that the ban applies wherever they act, but it also enables the United States to more effectively challenge its allies and adversaries to better respect human rights.”

In 2005, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzalez testified before Congress that the Justice Department interpreted the Convention Against Torture as not prohibiting “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment with respect to aliens overseas.” In 2006, in its last presentation to the Committee Against Torture, the U.S. delegation was ambiguous about whether the government considered Article 16, which requires state parties to undertake the prevention of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment “in any territory under its jurisdiction,” to apply beyond the borders of the United States.

“The lessons of the immediate past teach us that any lack of clarity can be exploited by loophole lawyering. That’s why the United States should be as expansive as possible in its interpretation of what territory the United States ‘controls as a governmental authority,’” continued McBride.  “Affirming that the treaty applies to the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo and on ships is important, but any interpretation that would not have covered the secret CIA prisons and other foreign places of detention where we know U.S. officials engaged in torture would not be credible.

“Finally, while it’s important that the United States be unambiguous about its anti-torture position here in Geneva, this is a conversation that should be happening at home as well where and when the American people can fully participate,” added McBride.  “The best way to make sure that happens is for the White House to cooperate with the Senate intelligence committee in declassifying the committee’s long-delayed report on the CIA torture program.”


Published on November 12, 2014


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