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Torture: Abroad and At Home

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November 18, 2005

As a follow-up to yesterday’s formal briefing of the UN’s Committee Against Torture, today I met in person with the two experts put in charge of reviewing and responding to the U.S.’s woefully deficient report on compliance with the Convention Against Torture. Somewhat surprisingly, it is much easier to get access directly to UN experts than it is to get face time with members of Congress.

Fernando Marino-Mendez is from Spain, Guibril Camara from Senegal. Both are experts on torture and human rights who have monitored abuses around the world. Marino was interested in learning more about the similarity between torture and cruel treatment by U.S. forces outside the U.S., and torture committed by government agents inside the United States.

Many Americans think of “torture,” even when committed by U.S. officials, as something that happens only at Abu Ghraib — and not within our own borders. Unfortunately torture is alive and well at home – in the epidemic of prison rape and sexual abuse in the nation’s prisons, in the police brutality suffered daily and disproportionately by people of color, in the use of vicious weapons like tasers.

The United States has conveniently wiggled out of full responsibility under the Convention Against Torture by limiting its understanding of what constitutes “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” through a “reservation” to the treaty. That’s how it has justified practices like waterboarding (mock drowning) and intimidation by vicious dogs at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan, and how it avoids any serious discussion of electro-shock weapons by police or sexual abuse in U.S. prisons.

It is up to organizations like the ACLU to show how the United States’ narrow and self-serving definition of “torture” is out of touch with the rest of the civilized world – and has led directly to abuses abroad and at home.

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