Press Release

December 10, 2007
Commission on Security and Cooperating In Europe

Mr. Chairman, I am happy to conduct this hearing today, examining some of the complex legal and policy questions relating to torture, and very grateful to the University of Maryland for providing us with the outstanding facilities to hold this field hearing.

As it happens, today is International Human Rights Day, a day which commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights nearly 60 years ago.  As stated in that historic document:  “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Since then, the United States has adopted other international commitments and obligations relating to humane treatment:  the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and, of course, the 1984 Convention Against Torture.

In the Helsinki process, the United States has joined with the 55 other participating States to condemn torture.  A compilation of those OSCE commitments is available on the table outside this room, but I want to quote one particular provision, because it speaks with such singular clarity.  In 1989, in the Vienna Concluding Document, the United States – along with the Soviet Union and all the other participating States – agreed to “ensure that all individuals in detention or incarceration will be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” There are no exceptions or no loopholes, and this is the standard which the United States is obligated to uphold.

I deeply regret that, six decades after the adoption of the Universal Declaration, it is necessary to have a hearing on torture and, more to the point, I regret that the United States’ own policies and practices must be a focus of our consideration.

As a member of the Helsinki Commission, I have long been concerned about the persistence of torture and other forms of abuse in the OSCE region.  I am particularly troubled by the pattern of torture in Uzbekistan — a country to which the United States has extradited terror suspects.  In November alone, Radio Free Europe reported that two individuals died while in the custody of the state.  Their bodies, when returned to their families, bore all the markings of torture.

Unfortunately, United States leadership in the effort to combat torture and other forms of ill-treatment has been undermined by the revelation of abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.  In fact, when Secretary of State Rice met with leading human rights activists in Moscow in October, they told her that allegations of abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have hurt Washington's authority on human rights. 

As horrific as the revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib were, in a certain respect the government’s own legal memos on torture may be even more damaging, since they appear to reflect a policy to condone torture and immunize those who may have committed torture.

Torture remains a serious problem in a number of OSCE countries, particularly in the Russian region of Chechnya, but if the United States is to address those issues credibly, we must get our own house in order.

In this regard, I was deeply disappointed by the unwillingness of Attorney General Mukasey to state clearly and unequivocally that waterboarding is torture.  As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I chaired part of the Attorney General's confirmation hearing.  And I found his responses to questions relating to torture woefully inadequate.  As it happens, on November 14, I also participated in another Judiciary Committee hearing at which an El Salvadoran torture survivor testified.  This medical doctor, who can no longer practice surgery because of the torture inflicted upon him, wanted to make one thing very clear: as someone who had been the victim of what his torturers called “the bucket treatment,” he said, waterboarding is torture.

Earlier this year, former Bush administration counselor Phillip Zelikow argued that, whether legal or not, the interrogation policies developed in 2002 were just flat-out “immoral.”  (Specifically, he said, “My own view is that the cool, carefully considered, methodical, prolonged, and repeated subjection of captives to physical torment, and the accompanying psychological terror, is immoral. I offer no opinion as to whether such conduct is a federal crime; merely that it is immoral.”)  He added: “Sliding into habits of growing non-cooperation and alienation is not just a problem of world opinion.  It will eventually interfere – and interfere very concretely – with the conduct of worldwide operations.”

At today’s hearing, we will certainly consider the laws that govern torture and other forms of ill-treatment – and on that score, we may hear views that differ from Mr. Zelikow’s.  But our witnesses will expand this discussion to the moral and ethical issues that Zelikow argued should have been considered by the administration – and were not.  I believe our witnesses may also pose some provocative questions about the relationship between human rights violations and democracy.