The Daily Outrage

The CCR blog

Seeking Accountability for U.S. Torture Abroad

A year after the Senate Select Committee released its declassified executive summary of the torture program, the grim political reality in the United States is undeniable. Through its inaction, the U.S. has sent the message that it condones torture: government officials responsible for it not only enjoy impunity but are, as recently happened with Dick Cheney, celebrated in Washington.

In the absence of political will at home, we have had to look elsewhere for accountability.

Yesterday, CCR and our partner the Canadian Centre for International Justice (CCJI) filed additional information with the United Nations Committee Against Torture in our pending case against Canada for its failure to uphold its treaty obligations to investigate and prosecute former President George W. Bush while he was in Canada in 2011. Under the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” national authorities of any State are obligatedto investigate and prosecute people for certain serious international crimes even if the crimes were committed in another country. The underlying rationale is that crimes such as torture and war crimes are so egregious that they are effectively committed against the international community as a whole, and that all States have an interest in seeing these crimes punished so as to prevent their reoccurrence.

The timing of the submission coincided with Human Rights Day and served as a glaring reminder of how the United States has failed to uphold such an essential human right—the right of individuals not to be tortured. We hope that the new administration in Canada takes its obligations under international law more seriously than the prior administration, and affirms that it will not serve as a safe haven for torturers, including former U.S. presidents or vice-presidents.

U.S. domestic law and international human rights treaties, like the Convention Against Torture (CAT), by which the U.S. and Canada are bound, offer a clear legal framework in which these crimes should be addressed. Torturers should be criminally prosecuted, and, indeed, must be prosecuted when present in a country that has ratified the treaty.  Victims of torture should be provided redress.

But the U.S. has done neither. Even in the face of the shocking revelations in the Torture Report, and President Obama’s flippant admission that American officials “tortured some folks,” the administration has chosen to stay the course of “looking forward, not backwards.”

This is deeply disappointing, but hardly surprising. We have long known that neither accountability nor redress are likely to be found in U.S. courts any time soon. We have seen our efforts seeking justice both on behalf of individuals subjected to torture—whether in Afghanistan, at Guantánamo, or in a CIA black site, or through “extraordinary rendition” in Syria—quashed in federal courts. This is why, in the last decade, we’ve pursued accountability globally, working with partners in Germany, Switzerland, Spain, France, and Canada to urge those governments to investigate and prosecute Bush Administration officials who authorized, designed, and implemented the U.S. torture program.

In October 2011, Bush was scheduled for a speaking engagement in Surrey, British Columbia. During his visit, CCR and CCIJ urged the attorney general to open a criminal investigation against Bush for his role in authorizing and overseeing his administration’s wide ranging and well-documented use of torture. As Canada failed to initiate proceedings against Bush, four torture victims lodged a private prosecution against Bush while he was present in Canada, on October 20, 2011. Canadian officials moved to immediately close the case against Bush. Our complaint to the UN Committee Against Torture followed in November 2012 and is currently pending before the Committee.

Years later, with the release of the Torture Report, we have even more publicly available information about the torture program. The CIA and other senior U.S. officials engaged in a sophisticated program of calculated, aggressive, and egregious crimes.  They lied about how the program operated and the utility of the information obtained.  Government officials shaped various aspects of this program, from authorizing techniques to covering them up. In yesterday’s submission we further asserted that, “although Bush has not directly commented on his culpability in running the torture program following the release of the Torture Report (we recall that he admitted authorizing torture prior to his 2011 visit to Canada), former vice president Dick Cheney has confirmed Bush’s role in directing the CIA’s torture of detainees. Cheney also rejected any suggestion in the Torture Report that Bush was ignorant about the details of the CIA’s actions.”

By lodging a complaint with the United Nations, we hope that the Committee Against Torture will enforce the universal jurisdiction framework and send a clear message to future torturers that such crimes will not go unpunished. Following the ad-hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the early 1990s, efforts to ensure individual criminal accountability culminated in the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 1998. (Notably, the ICC is looking at the U.S. detention-related activities in Afghanistan, an ICC State Party since 2003, as possible crimes falling within its jurisdiction).  This is a system that has proven its potential to work.

There is no excuse for countries like Canada and the United States to play by different rules. Torture is illegal, plain and simple. We will continue to press the U.S. Attorney General to investigate these crimes. But we—and the victims of U.S. torture—will not stand by idly, waiting for that day.  Until politicians show political will to follow the law and do what is right, we will continue to work on behalf of our clients to fight for accountability, wherever that may be. 

Last modified 

December 14, 2015