1. Opinion

Column: Torture is wrong, and treaties have said so

Long before the Geneva Convention, President Abraham Lincoln originated the first code for humane treatment of detainees during the  existential crisis of the Civil War.
Long before the Geneva Convention, President Abraham Lincoln originated the first code for humane treatment of detainees during the existential crisis of the Civil War.
Published Dec. 12, 2014

We now have the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee's report on this nation's treatment of detainees, partially redacted at the insistence of intelligence agencies. The report may not shock us, for we have known of American abuse of detainees for more than 10 years.

Even before we first saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib, there were reliable reports of American misconduct and startling revelations that those activities were not random acts of a few rogue soldiers but activity sanctioned by government/military lawyers and high officials. The evidence came from a 2004 Red Cross report on Guantanamo and a supplemental report in 2007 on treatment of "high value" detainees. In 2013, the Constitution Project Task Force on Detainee Treatment — a bipartisan group of experts — issued its comprehensive report with factual findings and recommendations.

The Senate report confirms the worst of these reports and reveals even more, explaining why the CIA fought so hard to prevent its full publication.

Sadly, Americans have grown inured to the horror of these revelations. Some may even respond as Rush Limbaugh did to the Abu Ghraib pictures: "You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people. You ever heard of emotional release?''

The problem with callous reactions and indifference is that American mistreatment of detainees harms our nation — alienating our friends, degrading our reputation and betraying our principles. The problem internationally is that we have broken our promises. Human rights treaties are promises that the United States will not violate human rights. At a minimum, we must acknowledge that our nation has violated the terms of the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

Presenting the treaty in 1988, President Ronald Reagan acknowledged the active role of the United States in negotiating the treaty and referred to torture as "an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today." The treaty obligates all parties to "ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law."

The United States promised "to make these offences punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature" and to prosecute those who have been guilty of torture.

The treaty provides a definition: … the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person … inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

So, we have broken promises and this has diminished our standing in the world. Further, as President Barack Obama stated in June 2010:

"Torture and abusive treatment violate our most deeply held values, and they do not enhance our national security — they undermine it by serving as a recruiting tool for terrorists and further endangering the lives of American personnel."

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

More needs to be said of the "deeply held values" to which Obama refers, values that this country led the world in espousing. Though lost to the memory of most Americans, the United States originated the first code for treatment of detainees well before the Geneva Convention addressed that subject in 1929. That standard, known as the Lieber Code after its author, was issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, during the Civil War. The standard stated: "A prisoner of war is subject to no punishment for being a public enemy, nor is any revenge wreaked upon him by the intentional infliction of any suffering, or disgrace, by cruel imprisonment, want of food, by mutilation, death, or any other barbarity."

It continued with a catalog of controlling principles: Prisoners can be confined but are not to be subjected to "other intentional suffering or indignity," they are to be "treated with humanity" and this overriding principle: "Modern law of war permits no longer the use of any violence against prisoners in order to extort the desired information or to punish them for having given false information."

The United States has violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture and even our own principles dating back to 1863.

President Lincoln would be embarrassed by American mistreatment of detainees. We should be as well.

Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte is a past president of the American Bar Association and former president of Florida State University. He was a member of The Constitution Project's Task Force on Detainees released in 2013.


This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge