Friday, October 31, 2014

When it comes to torture, sunshine is the best disinfectant

On Monday, National Security Council Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan confirmed that the White House received a letter signed by 12 Nobel Peace Laureates calling on the administration to declassify information on the methods of torture used on detainees following the 9/11 terror attacks, including a long-awaited Senate Intelligence Committee report that has been resisted by the CIA. The letter urges the administration to verify the closure of so-called “black sites” abroad, where US officials sent detainees to be tortured outside the jurisdiction of US law, and to provide the world with a coherent plan to close the naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

The letter emphasizes the authors’ experiences with torture in their own national contexts, like the South African apartheid regime and the conflicts in Northern Ireland. The letter says, “Many of us among the Nobel Peace Prize laureates have seen firsthand the effects of the use of torture in our own countries. Some are torture survivors ourselves. Many have also been involved in the process of recovery, of helping to walk our countries and our regions out of the shadows of their own periods of conflict and abuse.”

In her statement responding to the matter, Meehan emphasized the president’s commitment to ensuring that torture and rendition programs never again be utilized by the US government, as evidenced by the issuance of Executive Order 13491, which prohibited US officials from using torture on detainees. Meehan did not mention the administration’s decision to not prosecute US officials who had engaged in torture, many of whom could be implicated by the information this letter asks be released.

In class we have discussed how the courts, American society, and the international community have struggled to confront the use of torture in the context of a highly secretive national security apparatus. Even today, five years after the issuance of Executive Order 13491, human rights activists are struggling to get the US government to properly acknowledge and hold to account those egregious violations of international and domestic law.

At the heart of this story is a conflict between the lofty rhetoric of the Obama administration on issues of torture, detention, and rendition and their inability to provide substantial measures for legal accountability. The refusal thus far to bring this information to the light of day is totally illegitimate. By embracing the state secrets doctrine in civil courts and by fighting the release of information surrounding the use of torture as a matter of policy, the administration has obstructed justice, ensuring that the laws, both international and domestic, that were brazenly violated in the aftermath of 9/11 cannot be duly enforced. As the esteemed authors of this letter remind us, truth and openness are the foundation of any recovery from a period of state-sponsored brutality. Ducking the issue will only cause the institutional culture in the security and intelligence bureaucracies that permitted these abuses to fester unchecked. One can only hope that Mr. Obama, a Nobel Peace Laureate in his own right, will sign on to the letter too by addressing this issue more substantially before he leaves office.

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