Those who torture 'cannot simply be granted impunity because of political expediency.'
From left: Former Secretary of Defense Ronald Rumsfeld, former President George W. Bush, and former Vice President Dick Cheney with their hands over their hearts. (Photo: File/Public Domain)
Few if any people, given recent history and the consistent position of the Obama administration, are expecting that former President Bush or any of his top officials will ever see the inside of a U.S. courtroom (not to mention a prison cell) for their role in authorizing the torture of suspected terrorists. Despite that dim view, however, calls for prosecutions are now louder than they've been in years and new hopes have surfaced that international prosecutions could fill the void left by the unwillingness of the U.S. to pursue such charges.
As Michael Rattner, president of the legal advocacy and human rights group Center for Constitutional Rights, declared on Thursday, "Bush and company shouldn’t plan on visiting the Prado soon unless they want to end up in a Spanish jail."
Those comments are part of renewed and international chorus calling for accountability and prosecutions that has emerged since Tuesday's release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's executive summary of their investigation into CIA torture that was authorized at the highest levels of the Bush administration at the onset of the so-called "War on Terror," which began in 2001 and continues to this day.
In the days since the report's release the call for prosecution of Bush, his vice president Dick Cheney, his Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, and other high-ranking officials who were involved with orchestrating, authorizing, and executing the CIA program have only grown.
In a statement released on Thursday, Juan E. Méndez, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, decried the example set by the U.S. in regards to torture, calling its failure to forcefully condemn its own behavior "a big drawback in the fight against such practice in many other countries throughout the world."
Méndez called the Senate's report "a first step in the direction of fulfilling other US obligations under U.N. Convention against Torture (CAT), namely to combat impunity and ensure accountability, by investigating and prosecuting those responsible."
"I travel to parts of the world [in my capacity at the UN] and I can attest to the fact that many states either implicitly or explicitly tell you: 'Why look at us? If the US tortures, why can’t we do it?'" he said. "There is no doubt that torture programs right after 9/11 have made the matter of terrorism worse and the torture that has taken place has been a breeding ground for more terrorism."
On Wednesday, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the U.N. high Commissioner for Human Rights, said that because the U.S. has ratified the
, it has a "crsytal clear" legal obligation to ensure accountability for the crime of torture.
"In all countries, if someone commits murder, they are prosecuted and jailed," al-Hussein said. "If they commit rape or armed robbery, they are prosecuted and jailed. If they order, enable or commit torture—recognized as a serious international crime —they cannot simply be granted impunity because of political expediency," he said.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights Ben Emmerson said the Senate report on torture shows "there was a clear policy orchestrated at a high level within the Bush administration, which allowed (it) to commit systematic crimes and gross violations of international human rights law."
Refusal to pursue such prosecutions by the Obama administration, argued director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth this week, "means that torture effectively remains a policy option rather than a criminal offense. The message sent to future presidents facing a serious security threat is that the domestic and international prohibition of torture can be ignored without consequence."
According to legal experts, however, the Senate report—though imperfect in many ways—can now act as a valuable tool for those abroad who continue to seek accountability and justice for the victims of torture at the hands of the U.S. government.
Some courts in Belgium, Spain, France and other European countries can prosecute severe rights abuses committed overseas. Famously, a Spanish court's indictment led to the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London in 1998.
Lawyers have sought prosecutions against Bush-era officials for war crimes in multiple European courts. In February 2011, Bush cancelled a trip to Switzerland, where alleged torture victims were planning to file a criminal complaint against him. [...]
Melina Milazzo, a policy counsel for the Centre for Victims of Torture, said the Senate's 500-page report summary, and the unredacted details in the 6,700-page full version, which remains secret, may be valuable to European lawyers.
"If I were a senior Bush administration official who was well-known to have engaged in this programme and advocated the use of torture, I would limit my vacations to the territory of the United States," Milazzo told Al Jazeera.
Which is why CCR's Rattner says Bush and other officials should avoid nations like Spain.
"Since the inception of the CIA’s program, the Bush administration setting up Guantanamo, its rendition program etc., CCR has made efforts both in the United States and around the world to hold government officials and private contractors accountable," Rattner explained. "The Senate Intelligence Committee report again, and with great force, tells us why officials must be held accountable. The United States government is required to do so under the convention against torture. The pressure on it must be maximized to do so. As the government seems to have clay feet, including Obama, international prosecutions in Europe and around the world are necessary. CCR has brought such efforts in Spain, where the case is still pending, Switzerland and Germany. Our efforts in this area now have an even greater chance to succeed. I don’t think the courts of the world will stand by while the country that claims it is a human rights protector becomes a major example of a human rights violator."
Francis Boyle, an international law and human rights expert and professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, agreed with the importance of the findings in the Senate report. "Now we have an official branch of the U.S. government adopting and making these findings of fact," Boyle told the International Business Times on Wednesday.
In addition to possible prosecutions by the Inter Criminal Court, Boyle told the IBT that public release of the Senate's investigation—even if partial and highly redacted—will help bolster the case that U.S. officials like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and others were in direct violation of international treaties signed by the U.S. government, including the UN Convention Against Torture. "All states signed to that convention," said Boyle, are "required to have domestic legislature in place to prosecute torture. It does seem that if any of these individuals go outside of the U.S., we can go after them."
Though the United States has never submitted to the authority of the ICC, Boyle told the IBT "he believes that bringing a case against Bush and his officials is crucial to rebuilding the ICC as a legitimate international court that doesn’t just go after 'tin pot dictators' in Africa. He said he will submit follow-up appeals to the ICC after reading through the entirety of the Senate report."
"The Senate Intelligence Committee report again, and with great force, tells us why officials must be held accountable. The United States government is required to do so under the convention against torture. The pressure on it must be maximized to do so. As the government seems to have clay feet, including Obama, international prosecutions in Europe and around the world are necessary."
As long-time progressive activist Jim Hightower declared in the wake of the Senate report this week, "A ban is a ban — not a matter of fleeting policy, but of settled moral principle. It’s a statement to the world of who we Americans are."
Hightower said the least American people outraged by the torture done in their name could do is call the White House comment line and urge President Obama to put "moral principle over the imagined convenience of torture tactics" and demand those responsible for the program be finally held to account. He even offered the number: 202-456-1111.