February 14, 2011
The consequences of condoning torture
The US, like the governments of many nations, has long practiced torture and the killing of people. But at least in the past it had enough sense of shame and awareness that it was wrong that they would take pains to make sure that there was plausible deniability. With the advent of the Bush-Cheney regime and the 'war on terror', torture practices became acceptable and not only did they not deny that they authorized things like waterboarding, they even took pride in it as a sign of their toughness.
Barack Obama seems be going along with the practice of torturing prisoners in its own bases abroad or by the practice of 'rendition', sending prisoners to other countries to have their forces torture people. The US practices a form of 'torture shopping', selecting countries depending on the kinds of brutalization of prisoners they want.
Foreign nationals suspected of terrorism have been transported to detention and interrogation facilities in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Diego Garcia, Afghanistan, Guantánamo, and elsewhere. In the words of former CIA agent Robert Baer: "If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear - never to see them again - you send them to Egypt."
While moralizing about human rights, the US has become quite accepting of torture as long as we are the ones who do it or it is done by other countries for our benefit.
But now other countries seem to be not quite so forgiving of these crimes. George W. Bush has had to cancel a trip to Switzerland because of fears that he might be arrested for war crimes, although the official reason given is that the hosts were concerned about disruptive demonstrations.
Scott Horton reports on what transpired.
Two victims of torture in U.S. detention have prepared a criminal complaint against Bush (PDF), backed by a coalition of international human rights groups, two former United Nations rapporteurs, and two Nobel Peace Prize laureates. The indictment appears to have been furnished to Geneva's cantonal prosecutors with a request that they act on it by arresting the former president. There's no indication that the Geneva criminal justice authorities would have taken such a step—which would have been certain to provoke a diplomatic incident between Switzerland and the United States. On the other hand, an attorney involved in the complaint stated that she had no doubt that Bush's change in travel plans had to do with the criminal case against him. "Waterboarding is torture, and Bush has admitted, without any sign of remorse, that he approved its use," said Katherine Gallagher, who works with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights. "The reach of the Convention Against Torture is wide—this case is prepared and will be waiting for him wherever he travels next."
Even the Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson warned Bush that if he comes there to promote his book, he may be arrested for authorizing torture.
Donald Rumsfeld reportedly had to flee France because of the threat of arrest for war crimes. Other people such as Dick Cheney also face the threat of arrest if they venture abroad. Henry Kissinger is another person who deserves to be arrested and tried on war crimes.
How has it come to pass that American leaders are now effectively fugitives?
Scott Horton says that this is because the US government has created a culture of impunity within the CIA and its security forces. He says that the CIA operatives who tortured people, including the ones who committed the horrendous injustice to Khaled el-Masri, not only did not suffer any consequences, they were shielded from prosecutions by other countries and even received promotions. But there is a price to be paid for this condoning of war crimes and the creation of a culture of impunity where lower-level people are given carte blanche to violate the law in the war on terror. As Horton writes:
Such a culture has certain legal consequences. Under the doctrine of command responsibility, when an organization involved in warfare fails to punish or discipline those who engage in criminal conduct, criminal liability passes to the senior officers of that organization.
So because they refused to take action against torturers, Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld could all be arrested for war crimes if they go to other countries.
This is what happens when a country abandons the rule of law and respect for human rights. Its leaders can end up becoming fugitives from justice. Obama could well face the same threat when he leaves office since he has done little to dismantle the arbitrary detention and torture system set up by Bush-Cheney and has even expanded its scope.