By William Fisher
The fifteenth anniversary of the U.S. ratification of the United Nations Convention Against Torture passed last week with little fanfare and virtually no press attention from the mainstream media here.
But according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), "U.S. policy continues to fall short of ensuring full compliance with the treaty."
For example, the organisation said that an appendix to the Army Field Manual (AFM) can still facilitate cruel treatment of prisoners and detainees at home and abroad.
The Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (CAT) is the most comprehensive international human rights treaty dealing exclusively with the issues of torture and abuse. It came into effect in 1987, and has been ratified by 146 countries.
The treaty was initially signed by the Ronald Reagan administration in 1988 and was ratified by the Senate on Oct. 21, 1994, but with reservations, understandings and declarations (RUDs) that failed to make the treaty fully applicable.
The administration of former President George W. Bush exploited these RUDs to justify abusive interrogation policies, including the use of waterboarding, stress positions, extreme isolation and sleep deprivation.
In 2006, the Committee Against Torture, which reviews country compliance with CAT, criticised the U.S. for failure to uphold the treaty and called for full compliance.
After taking office, President Barack Obama issued an executive order prohibiting torture. But under an appendix to the 2006 revised U.S. Army Field Manual – the most recent edition – practices considered incompatible with CAT and international law are still allowed. These include force-feeding, psychological torture, sleep and sensory deprivation.
And under Appendix M to the AFM, detainees can be "separated" or held in isolation from other detainees for 30 days, or longer with authorisation, and allowed only four hours of continuous sleep per night over 30 days, which can be prolonged upon approval.
Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU Human Rights Programme, told IPS, "The president's first nine months in office have signaled a policy shift on human rights and commitment to the rule of law. Certainly his speech to the U.N. and his Nobel Peace Prize have raised the bar of expectation as to his commitment to advancing human rights at home and abroad."
But, he added, "There is still much more to do, including honouring and expanding U.S. human rights commitments and fully incorporating them into domestic policy. U.S. credibility abroad and commitment to human rights at home will be judged by deeds, not by words."
"What is needed now is taking concrete actions to translate these commitments to a robust human rights policy. A new presidential executive order to reconstitute the Inter-Agency Working on Human Rights would be an important step forward," Dakwar said.
"To fulfill its human rights requirements, the administration must also fully investigate crimes of torture committed in violation of U.S. and international law and withdraw the Army Field Manual's Appendix M," he added.
Since his inauguration, President Obama has helped restore U.S. standing on human rights by issuing executive orders to close the Guantánamo detention centre, prohibiting CIA prisons and enforcing the ban on torture, joining the U.N. Human Rights Council, signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and prioritising the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
While welcoming these steps, the ACLU is calling for additional concrete measures to reassert U.S. leadership on human rights, including the full investigation of torture crimes, abandoning the Guantánamo military commissions and renouncing the practice of holding detainees indefinitely without charge or trial.
The ACLU's Dakwar told IPS that he "expected the administration to announce concrete plans to implement and enforce ratified human rights treaties and the resurrection of the Interagency Working Group on Human Rights - disbanded during the Bush administration - to coordinate and promote human rights within domestic policy."
He said, "There is hope and expectation within the human rights community that the president will make the announcement on resurrection of the Inter-Agency Working Group on Human Rights as soon as Dec. 10 – international human rights day and the day he will be receiving the Nobel Peace Prize."
He noted that shortly after the U.S. elections, the ACLU and more than 50 U.S.-based human rights, civil rights, civil liberties and social justice organisations launched the Campaign for a New Domestic Human Rights Agenda, which identified concrete goals for pushing the administration and Congress to strengthen the U.S.'s commitment to human rights at home.
The campaign have four primary objectives. First is re-creation of the Interagency Working Group on Human Rights, first initiated in 1998 by President Clinton through an executive order, but effectively disbanded by the Bush administration in 2001. The call is for a new executive order to be issued with an improved and strengthened mandate.
Second is transformation of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission into a U.S. Civil and Human Rights Commission. The current commission was created in the 1950s with the mandate of monitoring and enforcing compliance with U.S. civil rights law.
In recent years, it has grown dysfunctional and been largely discredited. Currently there is a push to re-form the commission. The Leadership Conference for Civil Rights has taken the lead on the reform effort, and, along with the Campaign, has called for a new commission with a mandate to monitor the U.S.'s compliance with its human rights (as well as civil rights) commitments.
Third is implementation of recommendations by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and to create a plan of action to enforce them at the domestic level.
Lastly, the Campaign is calling for implementation and coordination of human rights on the state and local level, particularly in partnership with state and local human rights and civil rights commissions.