Murari Sharma: Hold Them to Account

EIT (enhanced interrogation techniques), the euphemism for torture, has become a global buzzword after Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chair of the US Senate Intelligence Committee and a Democrat, recently made public the summary of her committee’s report after years of investigation. In 2002, after the 9/11, the Bush administration had approved guidelines  to extract information from terror suspects by using torture to keep America safe. And the Central Intelligence Agency had used torture until President Barack Obama had ended the program in 2008 as unacceptable.

As soon as the summary came out, mutual recrimination started in the United States. The Republicans, who had opposed the report’s publication, criticized Feinstein’s step as partisan, because a republican White House had authorized the program. They defended the program arguing that it was the president’s duty to keep America safe by whatever means after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York and Washington DC.

The Democrats justified the report’s publication. They argued that torture is illegal and wrong, and the United States should admit the mistake so no future administration would ever resort to it, which is against American values and principles and against rule of law; it also undermines America’s moral standing in the world and puts Americans in the harm’s way if they are caught outside the United Sates.

John Brennan, the CIA director, took a conciliatory path in a press conference the other day. He publicly admitted that mistakes were made by some CIA operatives, but defended that the CIA action as within the mandate. He also conceded that the benefits of the program were unknowable. He urged everyone to look forward, rather than trying to find faults in a program that has been ended already several years ago.

In response, Amnesty International Director Steven Hawkins issued a statement in which he said, “Brennan is wrong if he thinks the process stops with the release of the torture report summary. It is just starting. Acknowledgement is not accountability and torture isn’t a mistake – it’s a crime. We need to see full investigations, prosecutions where there is sufficient evidence, and justice and remedies for victims.”

Political pundits are divided. Conservative columnist of the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer thundered, “The root-and-branch denunciation of the program as, in principle, unconscionable is not just hypocritical but ahistorical.”  On the other hand, Fareed Zakaria, a liberal columnist of the same paper, wrote supporting the report’s publication, “Closed systems work badly. Open systems have the great advantage of getting feedback — criticism, commentary, audits, reports . . .Democratic accountability is almost like a market test for government agencies. It forces an outside check that is otherwise very difficult to come by.”

What has been missed in this debate is this: Torture is illegal in international law, for the UN Convention Against Torture 1984 has prohibited it. It is illegal in the US laws because America has ratified the convention.

It has also seriously undermined America’s role as the champion of human rights. The United States was instrumental in bringing forward the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that bans torture. It was instrumental in disbanding the UN Human Rights Commission, which had too many human rights violators as members, and replacing it with the Human Rights Council with more stringent membership rules.

Every year, the State Department puts out a report criticizing torture and human rights violations perpetrated by other governments around the world. US ambassadors poke their nose preaching democracy and human rights across the globe. Now the sheriff is caught with his hand in the till; his credibility and moral authority on this matter has been undermined, if not vanished completely, simply because it is still the foremost power in the world.

I have always thought the United States as my second home, a country where I went to school and worked for seven years. I am deeply saddened by this unfortunate EIT program. The world needs a country with a powerful voice that champions human rights and democracy. The European countries are there, but their voice is not heard around the world that much anymore. Billions of people around the world, whose human rights are at stake, have been saddened that America has lost its moral pedestal.

Let us face it: Torture is wrong in all circumstances, even if it yields actionable intelligence. It was wrong immediately after 9/11, it is wrong today, and it will be wrong tomorrow. It is wrong for other countries and it is wrong for the United States to use it. Sure, it was wrong that the Republican president approved the program and it was wrong that the Democrats did not oppose it then. The use of torture is a dark spot in America’s image in the world.

However, the most horrendous wrong will be not to hold accountable who authorized torture and who used it physically.

America can do better than torture people to extract information about terror plots. If America compromise its principles and values, other countries will follow suit. The Islamic State will justify far more heinous crimes citing the EIT practiced by the United States. Rogue states around the world would do the same. You cannot criticize others and hold them accountable for torture with a straight face and from a moral high ground if you engage in it yourself.

I am happy that EIT is already discontinued. That is welcome. The way forward now is to hold those people to account who authorized it and who administered it, so that it is never used again. So let us take the Senate report on torture in a constructive spirit and chart a better course for the future.



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