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US Reversing Bush Overseas Torture Policy, Obama Admin. Tells UN

US troops engaged in widespread torture at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

US troops engaged in widespread torture, often of innocent detainees, at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

The Obama administration told a United Nations anti-torture committee in Geneva, Switzerland that the United States will reverse a key Bush-era policy stating a ban on torture did not apply outside America’s borders.

The US delegation was grilled by the UN Committee Against Torture on Wednesday over Washington’s compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture. The Americans announced that US anti-torture policy will now include overseas facilities like the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The announcement marks a major shift from the previous administration, which argued that the UN Convention Against Torture, Geneva Conventions and other domestic and international laws were not applicable outside the United States.

“In contrast to positions previously taken by the US government, the delegation will affirm that US obligations under Article 16 [of the UN Convention Against Torture], which prohibits cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, do not apply exclusively inside the territorial United States,” White House National Security Council Spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a written statement.

“The United States pledges to continue working with our partners in the international community toward the achievement of the Convention’s ultimate objective: a world without torture,” the statement added.

The US delegation also affirmed that “a time of war does not suspend the operation of the Convention, which continues to apply even when a State is engaged in armed conflict.”

American legal advisor Mary McLeod, one of the delegates, admitted to the committee that the US “crossed the line” in its treatment of detainees during the course of the ‘War on Terror.’

“The US is proud of its record as a leader in respecting, promoting and defending human rights and the rule of law, both at home and around the world,” said McLeod. “But in the wake of 9/11 attacks, we regrettably did not always live up to our own values.”

“We crossed the line and we take responsibility for that,” she said, echoing an August admission by President Barack Obama that “we tortured some folks.”

But Obama also said he understood why Bush officials authorized and military and intelligence operatives engaged in torture.

“It’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had,” Obama said in August. “A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure, and they are real patriots. But having said that, we did some things that were wrong.”

At its worst, abuse of terrorism suspects and other detainees, many of them innocent men, women and children, involved homicide, rape, imprisonment of relatives as bargaining chips, exposure to sometimes lethally extreme temperatures, and brutal beatings.

While killing and rape were not among the abuses authorized by the Bush administration, interrupted drowning (aka waterboarding), sexual humiliation, menacing with dogs, ‘music torture,’ sleep deprivation, wall-slamming, shackling in excruciating ‘stress positions,’ sensory deprivation, and other tortures banned under domestic and international law were among the US-approved ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques inflicted on detainees.

While campaigning for his first presidential term in 2008, Obama pledged to hold the Bush officials responsible for torture accountable. But he broke that promise after taking office, explaining he was “more interested in looking forward than… in looking backwards.”

Not only did Obama refuse to prosecute anyone in connection with the illegal torture of terror suspects, the Justice Department provided legal aid for John Yoo, the Bush lawyer who authored a memo claiming anti-torture laws did not apply to overseas terror detainees. The DOJ also attempted to stop torture victims from suing Yoo.

Both US and international law clearly state that failure to prosecute those responsible for torture is itself a war crime.

Leaked details from a still-classified Senate report confirmed the CIA lied about the extent and efficacy of its detainee torture program. Human rights advocates, including a dozen of Obama’s fellow Nobel Peace laureates, have urged the president to release the Senate report and repudiate what is widely regarded as one of the darkest chapters in American history.

While Obama has acknowledged and mostly rejected the torture which occurred in the post-9/11 era, critics charge that the US military still permits torture, in the form of solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation and music torture as approved techniques listed in the US Army Field Manual interrogation rules. These abuses are banned under the Geneva Conventions and other US and international laws.

Numerous human rights groups, including Amnesty InternationalPhysicians for Human Rights, the Institute on Medicine as a Profession and Open Society Foundations, have called for the revision or scrapping of all or parts of the Army Field Manual.

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