Wednesday, December 07, 2005

U.S. Pledges to Abide by U.N. Convention Against Torture

Condoleezza Rice appears to have made a major concession on the issue of how the U.S. treats detainees in the "war against terror":

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday the United States had banned all of its personnel from conducting cruel or inhumane interrogations of prisoners. Her statement appeared to mark a significant shift in U.S. policy.

"As a matter of U.S. policy, the United States' obligations under the CAT [U.N. Convention Against Torture], which prohibits cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment -- those obligations extend to U.S. personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the United States or outside of the United States," Rice said during a news conference with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

Rice's word choice is significant because, although the U.N. Convention Against Torture obligates its signatories (of which the U.S. is one) to " 'undertake to prevent' cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners 'that do not amount to torture,' " the Bush administration previous to this has insisted that this obligation only applies to prisoners on U.S. soil.

CIA interrogators in the overseas sites have been permitted to use interrogation techniques prohibited by the U.N. convention or by U.S. military law, according to former and current U.S. intelligence officials.

This is good news, no question -- but I am waiting to see whether this ban on cruel, inhumane, and degrading prisoner interrogations by U.S. personnel anywhere in the world signals a corresponding change on the larger issue of secret prisons. Policies banning torture, or cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, are useless if prisoners are held in clandestine facilities. Accountability, and thus enforcement, is impossible when no one knows where the prisons are or who is being held there.

My worry is that the Bush administration authorized this ban as a way of defusing the secret prisons issue. Will Europe let that issue drop now that Condi Rice is saying detainees will be treated humanely in accordance with international law?

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