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Torture: Provide Red Cross access to prisoners

NewsNotes, November-December 2009

The following article is written by Elaina Ramsey, an intern with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7: 12)

A disturbing study recently conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life indicates that 62 percent of white evangelicals, 51 percent of white non-Hispanic Catholics, and 46 percent of white mainline Protestants approve the use of torture against suspected terrorists.

These statistics change dramatically though when the question’s phrasing is changed: In a 2008 Faith in Public Life study, only 38 percent of white southern evangelicals believe that the use of torture is never or rarely justified. However, the number jumped to 52 percent when respondents were asked whether the U.S. government should use methods against our enemies that we would not want used on U.S. soldiers. When Christians think beyond utilitarian justifications for torture and consider biblical mandates on treating others as we want to be treated, torture becomes a moral issue that cannot be ignored.

Within two day of taking office, President Obama signed an executive order against torture in order “to promote the safe, lawful, and humane treatment of individuals in U.S. custody and of U.S. personnel who are detained in armed conflicts.” Despite his signature, President Obama’s ban is not permanent until Congress passes it into law. Many people of faith, consequently, are lobbying to codify certain elements of the executive order into law.

For instance, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture recommends that Congress uphold the provision in Obama’s executive order which states that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) be allowed access to all detainees. Under international law, the ICRC is mandated to serve as a neutral observer in conflicts and to protect civilians, prisoners, and others from abuse. The ICRC ultimately ensures that detainees are granted the rights guaranteed to them under international law.

It is not only politically expedient for the United States to respect and uphold the role of the ICRC, but it is a moral imperative as well. The ICRC ensures that captured soldiers and suspects are not subjected to inhumane treatment or simply “disappeared.” This past year President Obama shut down secret prisons in Eastern Europe and elsewhere that were established by the CIA during the Bush administration. Former detainees claimed to have been tortured in these clandestine prisons, but their allegations have yet to be verified. Without the accountability of neutral entities such as the ICRC, interrogators have free reign to potentially “disappear” or torture detainees.

As the U.S. government maintains the rights of foreign prisoners and follows international norms, it can better safeguard the rights of U.S. soldiers. If, as polls suggest, U.S. citizens would not use any interrogation techniques considered to be illegal or immoral if used on our own troops and citizens, the same restraint must be extended to enemies of the United States. Reporting all detainees to the ICRC and granting the ICRC access to them could, therefore, protect all prisoners from being tortured or mistreated.

Providing the ICRC access to detainees would not only restore U.S. credibility on the issue of torture, but is simply the right thing to do. As people of faith who affirm human dignity and the image of God in others, we cannot stand by as prisoners are “disappeared” or abused. Call on Congress to uphold the biblical mandate to treat others as we want to be treated by permanently making the ICRC access provision of President Obama’s executive order into law.

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