Prague, 27 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The timing of the Amnesty International report might raise questions about the political motivation of its authors, which is why RFE/RL asked Amnesty spokesman Brendan Paddy to address this issue.
Paddy, in a telephone interview from London, explained why the human rights group decided to release its findings this week -- just a week ahead of the U.S. presidential election on 2 November.
"It's now almost exactly six months since the scandal at Abu Ghurayb was revealed and we wanted to follow through on that because we're very concerned that the administration has not taken all the steps we feel are necessary to prevent a reoccurrence of that torture taking place again. I think the second point is that we do want to influence the U.S. election, but not in the way perhaps that people are suggesting. We want to influence the U.S. election by asking both candidates for president to make a firm commitment to make sure that torture does not continue," Paddy told RFE/RL.
Amnesty International, in its report, says governments that have signed the 1985 UN Convention Against Torture have pledged to have a "zero-tolerance" policy against torture. But the group charges the United States has "manifestly failed" in this regard.
Amnesty says in the report that "at best [the U.S. government] set the conditions for torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by lowering safeguards" on the treatment of prisoners in its war on terror. At worst, the group charges, U.S. authorities "authorized interrogation techniques which flouted the country's international obligation to reject torture and ill-treatment under any circumstances and at all times."
In the six months since the torture scandal at Baghdad's Abu Ghurayb prison was revealed, the U.S. military has taken steps to punish some of the soldiers involved. Several have already been tried for abusing Iraqi prisoners. But the larger issue of whether anyone at a higher command or political level is responsible for setting policies that allowed torture to take place has not been fully resolved.
"They have said that they oppose torture but then on the other hand they've sought to draw the definition of torture quite narrowly and to exclude things they describe, for example, as 'stress and duress,' which we would call quite frankly torture or at least ill-treatment."
Amnesty International says this leads it to believe that little has been done to prevent torture by U.S. personnel in the future. The human rights watchdog has set out a series of recommendations it would like Washington to implement. Paddy focused on the priorities:.
"There are two really obvious [recommendations]. One is, at the moment, the administration has not been as unequivocal about its opposition to torture as we would like. They have said that they oppose torture but then on the other hand they've sought to draw the definition of torture quite narrowly and to exclude things they describe, for example, as 'stress and duress,' which we would call quite frankly torture or at least ill-treatment. So that's one thing. They can speak out against it and they can be absolutely unequivocal. I think a second absolutely critical thing that they can do is that they can look at current practices. And we're now hearing very disturbing reports of this continuing in Iraq -- of secret detentions. We are hearing stories now breaking in the United States that suggest that significant numbers of detainees are being taken in secret from Iraq to [other] secret locations," Paddy said.
In recent months, several newspapers in the United States, including "The Wall Street Journal," have documented cases of prisoners in U.S. custody being sent to third countries where restrictions on torture are lax or nonexistent. This is in direct violation of Article 2 of the UN Convention Against Torture. The United States, although it has ratified the convention, has reserved the right to interpret this particular article according to its own standards - something Amnesty International says should not continue.
"Amnesty has been fighting torture for 30 years and one thing that we have learned very well over that time is that if people are detained in secret, then the possibility for torture will be there and will be strong," Paddy said.
Paddy laments the fact that the United States, which has in the past played a pivotal role in drafting and ensuring the passage of human rights legislation around the world now finds itself in such a compromised position. "The United States was absolutely instrumental in setting up a lot of the basic international law that makes torture a war crime in times of war, a crime against humanity under any circumstances, and so on and so forth," he said. "So this isn't international law that the United States has not agreed to. It's international law that the United States has been instrumental in actually getting onto the statute book. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is perhaps the founding document for the whole framework, the United States had a very great hand in it."
In its report, Amnesty calls on the United States administration to end the practice of holding prisoners incommunicado or at secret locations and to grant all detainees access to legal counsel, relatives and doctors as needed. The organization warns that already, "double standards have greatly undermined the credibility of the U.S.'s global discourse on human rights."[For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".]