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ON 9TH DECEMBER 2014, a day before the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention Against Torture, which was signed by the United States in 1988, the US Senate released a report on "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by the CIA.
In the report, there seems to be a stubborn denial to call a spade a spade, or to blatantly admit that "we've tortured some folks" (as the US president Barack Obama has done already). But was it really torture or did Obama use the wrong word? Let us turn to the Convention itself. It defines torture as:
"Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining information or a confession, punishing him for an act he has committed or is suspected of having committed..."The definition goes on, but from those few lines we already get an impression that we are reading a summary of the report itself, not a convention adopted by the United Nations General Assembly some thirty years ago.
It then goes on to say that torture can never be justified, no matter the circumstances, including in response to a war, terrorist acts or any other form of armed conflict.
The Convention very specifically states that torture cannot even be justified as a means to protect public safety or to prevent public emergencies.
However, the exact text of the Convention matters little to the people who saw the Twin Towers collapse on 11th September 2001, with all the horrors of human deaths and sorrow that followed. Recent polls show that many Americans think torture can be justified. According to the Washington Post, as many as 59% of the US public think torture was justified following 9/11 attacks.
But, did torture really begin in 2001? The answer is obvious: of course it didn't. In fact, CIA torture predates 9/11 by decades.
CIA torture techniques have changed little since the Vietnam war, when prisoners were thrown from helicopters, exposed to electric shocks and threatened with the death of their children. Throwing people from helicopters, which might not go down well with the American public, has been replaced with waterboarding, rectal feeding and sleep deprivation for anything up to 180 hours.
The long history of torture by the US, or its proxies, can be traced through El Salvador, Venezuela, Chile, Cuba, Iraq, Nicaragua, Afghanistan -- the list is endless. But the point is clear: the terrorist atrocity on 9/11 was not the beginning, and unfortunately neither were they the end, of America's use of torture.
Some argue that there was nothing new in the Senate report, as the facts of CIA torture had long been out there. They might have only rarely found their way into the mainstream media, but horror stories of prisoners being frozen to death, chained to a wall in a standing position for 17 days, or placed in a small confinement box with insects, were published by various groups hoping to provoke a public outcry leading to the end of these practices.
But there was no outcry, no indignation, nothing. Even now, after the report in which the CIA officially admits regularly using the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" to obtain intelligence, the silence is deafening. Guantanamo Bay prison housing prisoners who have been tortured remains open. Amnesty International's demand for an enquiry into the UK's role in torture remains unanswered.
It must be noted that the Senate report does not condemn the CIA use of torture; that is not its purpose. The main theme that runs throughout the report is that the techniques employed were ineffective, or the intelligence obtained was not useful. Either the CIA already had the information it was using torture to extract, or it could have been obtained without using brutal and illegal methods.
The US administration does not condemn the CIA either, with President Obama stating that torture is "against out values". But use of torture is also forbidden under US law and Obama specifically ruled out holding those responsible to account. Instead, he reassures the perpetrators, "Those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice... will not be subject to prosecution."
The question now is, how can the United States, after officially admitting to the use of torture by its state intelligence agency -- and failing to prosecute those involved -- claim to be a role model for the rest of the world on issues of human rights?
How can the US demand accountability from human rights abusers after it has abused the rights of so many itself?
How can the US counter the view that it should "clean up its own backyard first" before lecturing other countries, as remarked by China's Xinhua news agency?
And what answer is there to Hong Kong's Ta Kong Pao newspaper, when it says that the report unveils the "ugly human rights head of the US" and will serve as a blow to its "credibility and international image"?
Condemnation of torture is not enough. Prosecution in accordance with the UN Convention Against Torture must follow for all those involved, no matter whether they gave orders or acted on them.