Prevarication in Geneva

The US is under review by the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva, and spin control is the name of the game. State Department legal counsel John Bellinger testified out of both sides of this mouth today, saying the US upholds the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment—but that it doesn’t apply in Afghanistan, Iraq or Guantanamo. He also denied that Justice Department memos had dumbed down the definition of torture—as if this cat wasn’t already long out of the bag. From South Africa’s News24, May 5:

Geneva – The United States launched an emphatic defence of its record on preventing torture and abuse on Friday.

The United Nations’ top anti-torture body has opened its first public examination of that record since US President George W Bush unleashed his “war on terror”.

US state department’s assistant secretary for human rights and labour, Barry Lowenkron, said: “US criminal law and treaty obligations prohibit torture and the United States will not engage in it or condone it anywhere.”

He said Washington was committed to eradicating torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment: “This is not just a legal obligation. We are fulfilling a higher moral obligation which our nation has embraced since its earliest days.”

US officials, however, also highlighted their legal reservations about the reach of the international convention against torture, overseen by the UN committee.

The US insists that the treaty did not apply to armed conflicts when the country signed it. In US eyes, this effectively excludes American activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the “war on terror”, from the convention’s scope.

Washington last reviewed before ‘war on terror’

Washington was last reviewed by the committee in 2000, before the September 11 2001 attacks, and before the US detained and interrogated suspects in its “war on terror”.

Most of the initial 59 written questions submitted by the UN panel questioned these subsequent measures.

US state department legal adviser, John Bellinger, urged the committee not to believe every allegation made about the US’ treatment of terror detainees.

He rejected claims that American justice department memos in 2002 and 2004 had limited the scope of what the US regards as torture, saying that “nothing in the memos changes the definition of torture governing US obligations under the convention, from what the United States accepted upon ratification of the convention”.

‘Treaty does not apply to Afghanistan and Iraq’

Bellinger said Washington felt that the treaty did not apply to Afghanistan, Iraq or the US military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where many “war on terror” suspects are detained.

Bellinger said: “Regardless of the legal analysis, torture is clearly categorically prohibited under both human rights treaties and the law of armed conflict.”.

He said all US citizens and government agencies, including intelligence services or contractors, were covered by federal and international laws outlawing torture and abuse inside and outside the US.

A US defence department official said there was no “widespread or systemic” use of torture or ill-treatment by the US.

The US delegation also denied that “terror” detainees had been transported between countries for interrogation.

The UN committee regularly reviews the record of the 141 countries that have ratified the convention against torture. It has little power.

More from a Reuters report:

The 10-member U.N. committee grilled the U.S. delegation on whether criminal responsibility has been established for known abuses, and challenged the U.S. definition of torture.

“We would like to have more details regarding the chain of command,” said Andreas Mavrommatis, the committee’s chairman.

Vice-chairman Wang Xuexian from China asked: “Where would you put such methods as interrogation by mock drownings — as torture or as other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment?”

“Are there measures to monitor CIA operations to ensure they are not violating the Convention Against Torture?”

The panel also asked about “extraordinary renditions” whereby prisoners are moved to other countries where, critics say, they can face torture, and asked whether seeking “diplomatic assurances” from governments was enough to prevent abuse of those moved.

“I would like to emphasise that the United States has not transported detainees to countries for purposes of interrogation using torture and will not,” Bellinger said in response, adding diplomatic assurances were relied on only “sparingly”.

Speaking after the session, Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch decried what she called “a continued attempt by the U.S. to say that the abuse we see in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan was just limited to a few bad apples.”

“The (Bush) administration is unwilling to assume responsibility for policies and practices that were promulgated at a high level, which allow a climate of abuse to flourish,” she said.

We won’t comment on the irony of China grilling the US about torture. Note that Bellinger also denies the claims of rendition and secret CIA prisons in Europe—even after these claims have been at least partially corroborated by a European Parliament investigation. From AP, May 2:

The parliamentary investigation began in January after news reports said U.S. agents had interrogated al-Qaida suspects at secret prisons in eastern Europe.

Human Rights Watch identified Romania and Poland as possible sites of the clandestine detention centers; both countries denied involvement.

Last Wednesday, the EU parliament committee said data from Eurocontrol showed the CIA conducted more than 1,000 clandestine flights in Europe over the last five years, and that some of them secretly shuttled terror suspects to countries where they could face torture.

Legislators said flight data showed a pattern of alleged hidden operations by U.S. agents, and they accused some European governments of knowing about it but remaining silent.

See our last posts on the torture scandal and the secret torture archipelago.