One day after the release of a damning Senate report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, the United Nation’s top human rights official said Wednesday that a key treaty the United States has signed requires that officials be held accountable for torture.
“The Convention Against Torture is crystal clear,” said Zeid Raad al Hussein, the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights. “It says – and I quote – ‘No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.’”
The convention, he said, “lets no one off the hook – neither the torturers themselves, nor the policymakers, nor the public officials who define the policy or give the orders.”
The rights chief made his remarks on the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the 1984 convention, which the United States and 155 other countries have signed.
“To have it so clearly confirmed that it was recently practiced – as a matter of policy – by a country such as the United States is a very stark reminder that we need to do far, far more to stamp it out everywhere,” Hussein said.
Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, said the Senate report should prompt prosecutions.
“It is now time to take action,” he said Tuesday. “The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in today’s report must be brought to justice and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes.”
Emmerson, a British lawyer, said the fact the Justice Department had written memos that authorized the harsh tactics used “provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability.”
“It is no defense for a public official to claim that they were acting on superior orders,” he said. “CIA officers who physically committed acts of torture bear individual criminal responsibility for their conduct and cannot hide behind the authorization they were given by their superiors.”
But those who committed abuses aren’t the only targets for criminal prosecution, he said. “The heaviest penalties should be reserved for those most seriously implicated in the planning and purported authorization of these crimes,” he said.
Under the conditions of the 1984 Convention Against Torture, he said, “the U.S. attorney general is under a legal duty to bring criminal charges against those responsible.”
Phil Lynch, director of the Geneva-based International Service for Human Rights, told McClatchy that as a matter of international law the United States is not the only country that could bring charges. He noted that the 1984 convention played a part in the arrest in London in 1998 of the late former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet following an indictment by a Spanish prosecutor for human rights violations.
Lynch said there is an obligation on member countries to investigate all allegations of torture and to hold accountable perpetrators involved “directly or indirectly” – including politicians and policymakers.
The prohibition of torture “is absolute,” he said.