The United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has issued a report slamming the United States on torture and surveillance — the last international condemnation of the United States that is now viewed by many as a threat to civil liberties and international law. This follows international reports condemning the Obama Administration for its attacks on the free press and Internet freedoms. The demand for action on torture revives one of the greatest failures of the Obama Administration when the President, shown after taking office, assured CIA employees that no one would be investigated or prosecuted for torture despite the existence of international treaties obligating us to carry out such prosecutions. The President has admitted (as is clear from domestic and international rulings) that water boarding is torture. What is fascinating is that those who continue to defend this Administration dismiss the criticisms of respected international public interest groups, award-winning journalists, and even United Nations organizations in such condemnations. It is part of what has become a blind loyalty for an iconic president over long-standing principles. As noted by a widening array of organizations and experts, Obama has proven a perfect nightmare for civil liberties — once a core and defining area for Democrats and liberals alike.
The report chastises the United States for an array of concerns from harsh sentencing for juveniles to drone attacks to global surveillance. Amnesty International’s U.N. representative noted that “The U.S. is adept at demanding human rights change from other governments, while failing to meet international standards itself.”
On torture, the report found that the evidence of a torture program by the United States is clear and called for an investigation and prosecution of members of the “armed forces and other agents of the U.S. government.” While there should be no need to remind this country: “The State party [the United States] should ensure that all cases of unlawful killing, torture or other ill-treatment, unlawful detention, or enforced disappearance are effectively, independently and impartially investigated, that perpetrators, including, in particular, persons in command positions, are prosecuted and sanctioned, and that victims are provided with effective remedies.” Only a few principled Democratic members have denounced Obama for his blocking of the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for torture.
I have previously written about the cynical calculation that led to Obama blocking the prosecution for those responsible for the torture program. He knew such prosecutions would be unpopular, and with so many constitutional principles since that time, he just did not see the value in adhering to principle (even those embodied within binding treaty obligations). Since Obama ran on a civil liberties platform, many expected an independent torture investigation as soon as he took office. After all, waterboarding is one of the oldest forms of torture, pre-dating the Spanish Inquisition (when it was called tortura del agua). It has long been defined as torture by both U.S. and international law, and by Obama himself. Torture, in turn, has long been defined as a war crime, and the United States is under treaty obligation to investigate and prosecute such crimes.
However, such a principle did not make for good politics. Accordingly, as soon as he was elected, Obama set out to dampen talk of prosecution. Various intelligence officials and politicians went public with accounts of the Obama administration making promises to protect Bush officials and CIA employees from prosecution. Though the White House denied the stories, Obama later gave his controversial speech at the CIA headquarters and did precisely that. In the speech, he effectively embraced the defense of befehl ist befehl (“an order is an order”). As I have written before (here and here), the Obama Administration has destroyed some of the core Nuremburg principles, particularly in its revisal of the “superior orders defense” to excuse U.S. officials.
The appearance of torture in the list of criticisms in the report shows that the world has not forgotten our towering hypocrisy in this area and the President’s decision to shield our own officials from prosecution — even after CIA officials admitted to destroying evidence of torture to protect themselves from any later investigation. China now regularly cites our own torture program — and the protection of U.S. officials responsible for the program — to defect criticism of its own programs.
What we have lost in the last decade is not simply clarity in dealing with human rights and civil liberties but credibility in voicing what were once undeniably American values.