Human Rights Experts Call for Prosecution, Reparations in Wake of U.S. Torture Report

The U.S. appears before the Committee Against Torture
The U.S. appears before the Committee Against Torture
Credit: UN Treaty Body Webcast

On Tuesday, December 9, the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (Intelligence Committee) published a report detailing the “abuses and countless mistakes” of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) detention and interrogation program in the years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. See Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program: Forward 2 (Intelligence Committee Report) (approved Dec. 13, 2012) (Declassification Revisions Dec. 3, 2014).

The release of the report was welcomed by human rights experts at the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, but also prompted calls for the U.S. to prosecute and punish those responsible for the documented acts of torture, enforced disappearance, and illegal detention.

Background and Findings of the Senate Report

The report, which was intended to “shape [U.S.] detention and interrogation policies” for the future, represents the culmination of a five-year investigation drawing on millions of pages of internal CIA documents. Id. at 2-3. It was prompted by the CIA’s destruction of videos documenting the interrogations of two CIA detainees in December 2007. Id. at 2. The Intelligence Committee voted to release the report in April of 2014, but was forced into a months-long battle with the CIA, which opposed its publication. [Washington Times]

In her forward, Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein emphasized that “under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured” and that the “conditions of confinement and the use of authorized and unauthorized interrogation and conditioning techniques were cruel, inhuman and degrading.” Intelligence Committee Report at 4.

The report concluded that the CIA’s techniques—including waterboarding, “rectal feeding,” wall-slamming, forced nudity, exposure to cold, and abdominal slapping—were brutal, ineffective, and did not produce any significant intelligence to counter threats against the United States. It also found that the CIA badly mismanaged the program—never achieving so much as an accurate accounting of the number of detainees— and that the CIA was ill-equipped to handle either the detention or interrogation of terror suspects. The CIA repeatedly misled the White House and Congress regarding the efficacy and brutality of the program, impeded any efforts to oversee the program, and failed to ever evaluate the effectiveness of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques. See generally Intelligence Committee Report.

Response from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Responding to the Intelligence Committee Report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) emphasized the absolute nature of the prohibition of torture. The right to humane treatment is a peremptory norm of international law, meaning that it can never be suspended, even in times of war, public emergency, or threat to national security. [IACHR Press Release]

The Commission called for a “full investigation,” urged the United States to prosecute and punish those who bear responsibility for the documented torture and ill-treatment, and noted that the U.S. has an international obligation to provide reparations including “restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and measures of non-repetition” to victims. [IACHR Press Release]

Response from UN Human Rights Experts

Like the IACHR, several United Nations experts emphasized the U.S. government’s obligation to prosecute and punish those responsible for the acts of torture documented in the report and to make reparations to victims.

The Special Rapportuer on counter terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, welcomed the “belated publication” of the report, and noted that it confirmed the existence of a “policy orchestrated at a high level within the Bush administration” that enabled the commission of “systemic crimes and gross violations of international human rights law.” [OHCHR Press Release: Feinstein Report]

Emmerson emphasized that the high-level authorization of the CIA’s policies “reinforce[d] the need for criminal accountability” and stressed that international law prohibits immunity for all those responsible for torture—including the senior officials who “devised, planned and authorised” the crimes. [OHCHR Press Release: Feinstein Report] Thus, Emmerson noted, the U.S. Attorney General is legally obligated, under international law, to “bring criminal charges against those responsible.” [OHCHR Press Release: Feinstein Report] Because torture is a crime of universal jurisdiction, those responsible may be prosecuted in any country they visit, but primary responsibility for their prosecution remains with the U.S. [OHCHR Press Release: Feinstein Report]

The Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, stated that the U.S. government’s reluctance to ensure accountability for torture “made it easier for other nations to shirk their responsibilities.” Indeed, a number of countries have either implicitly or explicitly questioned why they cannot resort to torture when the U.S. does. [OHCHR Press Release: If the US Tortures]

Like Emmerson, Méndez welcomed the publication of “a very thorough and frank report” despite pressure to keep it classified. [OHCHR Press Release: If the US Tortures] He noted that the release of the report “contributes to fulfilling the obligations of the United States with respect to the truth,” in that it should promote honest debate about why the U.S. engaged in torture and what must be done to ensure that it never does so again. But, Méndez stressed that this is merely a “first step” towards fulfilling the State’s obligations under the Convention against Torture (Torture Convention). [OHCHR Press Release: If the US Tortures] Pursuant to the Torture Convention, the U.S. must not only inform its citizens and the world about what happened, but also take steps to “combat impunity and ensure accountability by investigating and prosecuting those responsible.” [OHCHR Press Release: If the US Tortures]

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, likewise emphasized that the Intelligence Committee Report should be seen as “the beginning, not the end of a vital process,” noting that the report does not address the issue of accountability. [OHCHR Press Release: Need to Eradicate Torture] He emphasized that the Torture Convention is “crystal clear” that no circumstances whatsoever justify the use of torture, and that the Convention requires that torturers as well as the policymakers and public officials who condone or order torture bear individual criminal responsibility for their crimes. [OHCHR Press Release: Need to Eradicate Torture] Al Hussein also stressed that anyone who orders, commits, or enables torture may not be granted immunity for the sake of political expedience. This would “undermine” the Convention and “undermine our own claims to be civilized societies rooted in the rule of law.” [OHCHR Press Release: Need to Eradicate Torture]

Additionally, the High Commissioner noted that “victims of torture disappearance, extrajudicial executions, or arbitrary or unlawful detention must be speedily and adequately compensated for the terrible experiences they have suffered.” [OHCHR Press Release: Need to Eradicate Torture]

Committee Against Torture

Prior to the release of the Intelligence Committee Report, the Committee against Torture conveyed “grave concerns” with the CIA program in its Concluding Observations after reviewing U.S. practices pursuant to the Torture Convention earlier this year. See Committee Against Torture, Concluding observations on the third to fifth periodic reports of the United States of America (Advance Unedited Version) UN Doc. CAT/C/USA/CO/3-5 para. 11.

The Committee noted with concern that earlier U.S. investigations into allegations of torture and the CIA’s destruction of the videos of two suspects’ interrogations had not led to any prosecutions. Id. at para. 12. The Committee called on the U.S. to undertake “prompt, impartial and effective investigations wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture and ill-treatment has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction, especially in those cases resulting in death in custody” and to ensure the prosecution of all alleged perpetrators and accomplices – including those “in positions of command and those who provided legal cover to torture.” Id. Additionally, the Committee noted that the U.S. has an obligation to provide remedies and redress, including fair and adequate compensation, and as full rehabilitation as possible” for victims. Id.

Additional Information

To learn more about the Inter-American and United Nations human rights systems, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. Learn more about the right to be free from torture through IJRC’s thematic research guide.