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Torture: Indispensable truths
NewsNotes, July-August 2009

The following article was written by Tevyn East, a Discipleship Year volunteer who has worked with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns since September 2008.

President Obama’s quick action upon entering office to halt military commission procedures, support freedom of information, and issue an executive order calling for an end to torture and the closure of Guantánamo, was applauded by human rights advocates around the globe. Unfortunately, Obama’s principled stance has lacked consistency. In recent months he has opposed a Commission of Inquiry, prevented the release of photographs depicting detainee abuse, and articulated a plan which would reform (and reinstate) military commissions and create a legal framework for indefinite detention.

Righting the wrongs of the previous administration’s interrogation and detention policy is no easy task. However, the only way to repair the damage done and redeem the U.S.’s credibility as a proponent of human rights is to commit to a process of accountability and to fully comply with all international treaties and human rights laws.

Full accountability requires declassification of all evidence surrounding torture practices, the implementation of a Commission of Inquiry (or Truth Commission) and legal prosecutions where there is adequate evidence. Every report on the abusive techniques employed at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo have been limited to a single agency or department. Key players, who developed legal arguments and endorsed the techniques which fostered a culture of abuse, have not testified for the record. Key documents relating to interrogation policy and practices are not available to the public. The only way to determine what crimes were committed and to prevent them from being repeated is to establish an independent, nonpartisan commission to investigate the actions of the executive branch, the CIA, the justice department, the military and Congress. Furthermore, Obama should not abuse his classification powers or use state secret privilege to hide the history of abusive counter-terrorism policies. Truthfulness is imperative in redress of past injuries and restoring the integrity of this nation.

On May 21, Obama spoke at the National Archives about his plans to close Guantánamo and reform the military commissions. The fundamental flaws of military commissions are their lack of independence, their acceptance of dubious evidence, and their provisional nature. Managed by the military, these commissions are vulnerable to pressure from the executive branch. Obama is restricting the use of hearsay evidence, but it is still admitted in the commission proceedings. The ability to prepare a defense is strained when prosecutorial procedures are ad hoc and untested, often leading to legal challenges and delays. Human Rights Watch speaks to the risk of reviving such an unpopular program, “The unhappy history of these commissions virtually guarantees that in future commissions the unfairness of the proceedings will distract from the gravity of the crimes.” The most expedient, reliable and just due process for terrorist suspects is our federal court system.

In the same speech, Obama said that he would work with Congress to write legislation that would set up an “appropriate legal regime” for detaining terrorism suspects without trial. Human Rights Watch notes that indefinite detention would “create a glaring loophole in the U.S. justice system, and set a dangerous precedent for other types of prosecutions.” The Bagram Air Force Base, which is being expanded, still holds 600 detainees who have been denied the right to trial. For people abroad who have lived under military dictatorships, the U.S. military commissions and the threat of indefinite detention too closely resemble the gross injustice of such oppressive rule. It also gives a signal to repressive rulers around the world that acting outside of the law is permissible and tolerated by international players.

The U.S. cannot be a nation of principles if its policies and actions are not congruent with its espoused values. Lack of integrity undermines trust, strains foreign relations, and challenges needed multinational cooperation. Obama himself stated that moral authority is the United States’ “strongest currency in the world.” When actions are congruent with values, it will not only provide greater security but can heal the soul of this nation.

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