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U.S. torture record queried at UN committee

Published May 16, 2006 10:32 PM

Judging by responses to U.S. testimony at the International Committee Against Torture, Washington is on the defensive. Abu Ghraib and the other hellholes the United States runs in Iraq, Baghram Air force base in Afghanistan, Guantanamo in Cuba, thousands of “renditions” along with CIA operatives grabbing non-U.S. citizens off streets and beaches to be tortured thousands of miles away, the callous disregard toward the people of color who were victims of Hurricane Katrina—all this has exposed to the world U.S. imperialism’s cruel, vicious depravity.

With its propaganda machine that uses racism and bigotry dressed up in slick production values, Washington has tried to sell itself as holding the moral high ground. But to the extent anyone ever believed this claim, it was based on deceit.

Now Washington, afraid of losing a significant part of its worldwide political influence, is trying to regain this aura. That appears to be the State Department’s calculation. On May 5 the State Department sent a large, high-level delegation, headed by legal adviser John B. Bellinger III, to Geneva, Switzerland, for the International Committee Against Torture.

This committee is part of the United Nations. It was set up by the 1987 Convention Against Torture, a treaty that the United States signed. Under this convention, the United States had been expected to report on its detention policies by 1999.

The Geneva meeting was the first time the United States has responded in an international forum to any charges about its “detention policies” since Sept. 11, 2001. The delegation’s report stuck to the same tired denials that the U.S. government has systematically mistreated prisoners.

“The timing of our report comes at a difficult time for the United States,” said Bellinger, who is one of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s main advisors. “But we did not shy away from coming.”

Even the European members of the commission had trouble swallowing Washington’s dissembling responses. Fernando Marino Menendez of Spain, relying on reports from Amnesty International, raised the issue that only 10 U.S. service members or intelligence officers out of 600 accused of the torture or murder of detainees have received prison terms of a year or more.

Andreas Mavrommatis, UN ambassador from Cyprus and chair of the committee, was skeptical about Bellinger’s claim that the United States got diplomatic assurances that the suspects it turned over in its renditions would not be tortured. He said, “The very fact that you are asking for diplomatic assurances means you are in doubt.”

The European governments are mainly worried about violations of their sovereignty. Issues like secret CIA overflights, secret CIA prison camps, kidnapping of their citizens, and the need to keep their political distance from the debacle of Iraq appear to drive them. This came out clearly on the second day of questioning over the report. A committee of the European Union’s parliament is currently in the United States to investigate these charges.

Guibril Camara, a committee member and jurist from Senegal, challenged the United States directly. He said that the UN and its committee are the responsible bodies that will create the definition of torture. The United States wants to gut the definition by insisting on the phrases “excessive force or violence” and “significant injury or degradation.” Camara told the U.S. delegation: “One of the parties is going to have to give way. And I think it’s probably going to have to be you.”