Paris, 6 March 2006
How can a democracy justify resorting to torture? How can it detain, in secret and without trial, terrorist suspects - who must, as a suspect, be presumed innocent until proven guilty by a competent court - without losing all legitimacy?
The Bush Administration has done just that, in breach of its own Constitution (the Fifth and Sixth Amendments) and of international treaties—the Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Geneva Conventions, to name but a few.
The first blow in the systematic destruction of the pillars of democratic societies was struck in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks with the adoption of the USA Patriot Act, whose full title -Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act -makes its nature and purpose abundantly clear.
The Patriot Act grants the police special powers, curtails legal defense and undermines habeas corpus. Most importantly, it introduces the status of "enemy combatant" or "illegal combatant," allowing the US government to detain any person it suspects of being a terrorist indefinitely and without charge.
This arrangement has made it possible to keep almost 500 people detained in isolation and without trial at the Guantanamo base—only a dozen or so of whom have actually been charged.
Further fueling this undermining of civil liberties, the Executive Order of 13 November 2001 introduced special military tribunals to try foreigners (aliens) that have been designated as "enemy combatants"by the executive alone and on the basis of secret testimony or evidence.
The USA Patriot Act, a piece of special legislation that was originally intended to expire after four years, is about to be renewed before 10 March 2006. The bill adopted last week by the Senate, would make 14 of 16 provisions permanent and extend two others by four years.
The second blow, which watered down the concept of torture, was a statement by President Bush that rendered meaningless an amendment by Senator McCain seeking explicitly to outlaw, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners detained by the U.S. According to the President, his powers as Commander in Chief enable him to disregard the law. In other words, if torture is required for the sake of national security, it will be used regardless of what the law says.
The third blow, which could sound the death knell for the absolute ban on torture, was the eleventh-hour Graham-Levin amendment, which strips U.S. federal courts of the power to hear cases concerning mistreatment filed by "illegal combatants," who can no longer entitled to challenge the grounds for their imprisonment.
This amendment prevents prisoners from submitting complaints of torture or of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, thus implicitly making evidence obtained under duress acceptable. This sets an appalling precedent.
All in all, the U.S. has trampled what appeared to be solid foundations, and most of the democratic world has followed suit. Casting aside the hard-won principles that underpin the law and civil liberties blurs the line between a country’s security services and their terrorist adversaries. Unless the fight against terrorism upholds human rights, our democracies will lose all credibility and foundation.
The ban on torture is absolute and no departure from it can be tolerated.
Contact : Nathalie Jeannin - firstname.lastname@example.org
USA Patriot Act, October 24, 2001, Full Text
United States Department of Justice - Preserving life and liberty
Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), The USA Patriot Act
USA Patriot Act, ACLU Resources
"Bush to Restate Terror Strategy", By Peter Baker, Washington Post Staff Writer, March 16, 2006