By William Fisher
In about a week, the Commission hand-picked by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is due to release its findings on prisoner abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere. The panel is headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, and includes members of the DOD Defense Policy Review Board. Its mandate from Rumsfeld: Review Department of Defense detention operations and advise the Secretary of Defense on the “cause of the problems and what should be done to fix them.”
In its ‘what should be done to fix them’ role, the panel would do well to consider the 10-point strategy recommended to President Bush and the US Congress by Human Rights First, an independent, not-for-profit organization composed of lawyers with wide experience in prison detention and related issues. These are the group’s 10 recommendations:
Commit to upholding the laws on interrogation and detention. “…publicly affirm (America’s) commitment to upholding the letter and the spirit of the laws regulating interrogation and detention, including the Constitution of the United States, Acts of Congress, and the international treaties that it has signed…”
Investigate and prosecute all acts of torture and abuse and publicly report on all cases. “…investigate and prosecute…all those who carried out acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in violation of U.S. and international law, as well as those officials who ordered, approved or tolerated these acts…”
Ban the use of torture. Violations should include “sexual abuse, humiliation, use or threat of electric shock, medical or chemical methods or materials, beating, shaking, hooding, "water boarding," extended sleep deprivation, prolonged solitary confinement, and prolonged incommunicado detention (i.e., without visits from family members, consular officials, and/or legal representatives).”
Rescind all orders permitting conduct that amounts to torture and abuse. To include “interrogation orders, guidelines or regulations permitting conduct amounting to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment …”
Compensate victims of abuse and notify their families. “…in any case where violations of law are found, the victims of abuse and their families (should be) notified of all actions taken to redress the abuse, and…provided adequate reparation including compensation and rehabilitation.”
Mandate rigorous training for interrogators and ban civilian contractors from conducting interrogations. Training should include those engaged in “gathering intelligence through interrogation (and) U.S.-controlled interrogators should be instructed and examined at regular intervals…move immediately to ban the conduct of interrogation under any circumstances by civilian contractors to the U.S. government.”
Disclose the location of all U.S. detention facilities worldwide and account for all detainees in custody. Account for “the number and nationality of all individuals held, state the legal basis for their detention, and…to inform the immediate families of those detained of the detainee’s location and status.”
Inspect all military detention facilities worldwide and report findings to Congress. . “The Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Army, CIA, and other relevant Inspectors General should conduct regular inspections of all military and intelligence-run interrogation facilities worldwide to ensure compliance with U.S. legal obligations. Inspectors General should document the results of these investigations in regular reports to Congress.”
Provide all those in custody visits by the Red Cross and due process. “The legal framework governing the detention of all persons in U.S. military custody should be clarified. Where required under international law, each person must be afforded an individualized determination by an independent authority of his current status, rights and obligations.”
Ban transfer of prisoners to countries that use torture. “The United States should institute rigorous and regular procedures for evaluating the likelihood of torture or other human rights violations before any individual” is transferred.
The organization says its plan “is intended to move beyond concern and dismay and set a positive way forward.” Its goal “is to help the United States reclaim its role as a leading defender of fairness and liberty in the world and to make clear that abuses like those we have seen and read about can never again be done in America's name.”
It has now been three months since the world was exposed to the despicable photos of detainees being abused in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Since then, there have been many well-documented reports of similar abuses elsewhere, and evidence suggesting that the problem goes much further up the US military’s chain of command than the “few bad apples” the Pentagon has thus far blamed.
Currently, there are six separate investigations ongoing by the Department of Defense, in addition to that of the Schlesinger panel. Of these, the public has heard the ‘preliminary’ findings of only one: the report of the Army’s Inspector General, which found no evidence of ‘systemic failure’. Both Republican and Democratic Party members of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, which heard this report in testimony before a hurriedly convened meeting, were outraged with the results. And the Schlesinger panel itself has come under suspicion because of its reportedly close ties to Secretary Rumsfeld.
Whether the US military can credibly investigate itself remains an open question. The Schlesinger Commission’s report may help us decide. But if it ignores the common-sense recommendations of Human Rights First, it will have missed a golden opportunity to begin to restore respect and credibility to the United States. Then, the US will be looking toward a truly independent body built on the model of the September 11th Commission to determine the “cause of the problems and what should be done to fix them.”