September 08, 2006

Has Waterboarding Been Banned?

First, from the NYT:

Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions bars, among other things, “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment.” The administration says that language is too vague.

That is nonsense, said Harold Hongju Koh, the dean of Yale Law School and a State Department official in the Clinton administration. “Outrages upon personal dignity is something like Abu Ghraib or parading our soldiers in Vietnam before the television cameras,” he said. “Unconstitutionally vague means you don’t know it when you see it.”

But the new legislation would interpret “outrages upon personal dignity” relatively narrowly, adopting a standard enacted last year in an amendment to the Detainee Treatment Act proposed by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. The amendment prohibits “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and refers indirectly to an American constitutional standard that prohibits conduct which “shocks the conscience.”

There is substantial room for interpretation, legal experts said, between Common Article 3’s strict prohibition of, for instance, humiliating treatment and the McCain amendment’s ban only on conduct that “shocks the conscience.”

The proposed legislation, said Peter S. Margulies, a law professor at Roger Williams University, “seems to be trying to surgically remove from our compliance with Geneva the section of Common Article 3 that deals with humiliating and degrading treatment.”

The net effect of the new legislation in the interrogation context, Professor Yoo said, is to allow the C.I.A. flexibility of the sort that the revisions to the Army Field Manual have denied to the Pentagon. The bill lets the C.I.A. “operate with a freer hand” than the Defense Department “in that space between the Army Field Manual and the McCain amendment,” he said.

Could we now be arguing between tactics that fall somewhere between Article 3 and the McCain Amendment? I'm probably one of the last persons to believe anything John Yoo has to say on this matter, but I note that Ron Suskind in a recent interview states: "Death threats, waterboarding, profound deprivation issues, heat, cold, denial of medical attention -- those are now abandoned."

While my strong preference is for complete fidelity to Geneva's Article 3 requirements, pursuant to best Army Field Manual practice and norms, it is at least progress, if true, that tactics such as death threats, waterboarding and induced hypothermia are being abandoned. Progress, mind you, not an all clear, not by a long shot. Not least as we are not being told what tactics are still being employed, as far as I know, and they could well constitute torture (particularly given the Administration's duplicitious and untrustworthy track record on the entire gamut of detainee treatment and interrogation tactics issues over the past half decade). In addition, we have not seen any of the internal Administration legal memoranda making the case why tactics to be used going forward do not rise to torture as per the Torture Convention. Finally, don't miss this snippet from the NYT piece:

A senior intelligence official said that the new legislation, if enacted, would make it clear that the techniques used by the C.I.A. on senior Qaeda members who had been held abroad in secret sites would not be prohibited and that interrogators who engaged in those practices both in the past and in the future would not face prosecution.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, would not discuss the techniques the agency had used or was prepared to use.

Bottom line, at least as of tonight: I've been burned too many times to believe that this Administration has truly banned any and all tactics that constitute torture on enemy combatants in CIA custody, and so I'm not convinced yet we are are just dealing with penumbras as between Article 3 and the McCain Amendment, as Yoo would spin it. On top of this, I am a firm believer that strict compliance with best practices under Article 3 is the best way forward regardless, and even if I could be persuaded otherwise, I'm not at all comfortable with what this Administration would view as not 'shocking the conscience' regardless-- and thus permissible under their reading of the McCain Amendment requirements--certainly given previous Administration lawyering on such matters that can only be described as unprofessional and irresponsible in the extreme.

Note this is not about knee-jerk detainee rights absolutism, as some would have it. Ensuring torture is totally banned under American law is a touchstone issue that defines our very civilization, to include its continued embrace of Englightenment values, a belief in progress in the face of adversity, and ensuring that our most odious enemies are not successful in having us sully our human rights leadership, one so hard earned through the Cold War. In short, we must all remain seized and vigilant with regard to the great import of regaining our moral leadership on the world stage with respect to these foundational issues.

MORE: Marty Lederman has a related post here.

Posted by Gregory at September 8, 2006 05:51 AM
Comments

The only thing I take issue with here is your statement about "our human rights leadership, one so hard earned through the Cold War". We engaged in actions during the Cold War that were overtly hostile to human rights. Consider, just for starters, the overthrow of democratically elected regimes in Iran, Guatamala and Chile; our support for "death squads" in El Salvador; and the conduct of the Vietnam war. Not to say that confronting Stalinism and Maoism was not necessary, but some of our methods then were surely as flawed as the "methods" being used in confronting terrorism are today.

Posted by: Clay Fink at September 10, 2006 12:51 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Once thing I learned in Kindergarten that applies to many things in adult life: How to fairly share a piece of cake between two people. You all know the answer -- one cuts, the other chooses. The beauty is it is fair no matter who does the cutting -- you can exchange the rolls and its still fair.

My answer to "is it toture?" is the same -- if these things were done to an American soldier (or civilian) what would our level of outrage be? Then we should have the same level of outrage towards these things being done in our name (as Americans).

You'd think the self proclaimed "born again Christians" in this adminstration would understand that without having to be told.

Posted by: FredW at September 11, 2006 04:15 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

FredW, the problem is that a lot of americans are applying that measure in reverse.

They figure, if the enemy is doing head-chopping, then anything less we do to them doesn't matter.

Something like, "Do unto your suspected enemies as your worst enemy has done unto you."

There's a certain compulsion to the approach; people who're thinking that way tend to believe it's the only possible approach without giving it a moment's reflection.

Posted by: J Thomas at September 11, 2006 07:12 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Has Waterboarding Been Banned?

For years the Bush administration has denied we have secret prisons in other countries. Now Bush himself admits they did.

Why would we believe anything they say?

Fool me twice?

Posted by: J Thomas at September 11, 2006 09:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Posted by: JaneLoan_B at September 12, 2006 08:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I saw a segment on Australian TV on the anniversary of 9/11 showing what waterboarding actually looks like and still cannot get this image out of my head. On the same night there was a doco (excellent by the way) called "path to 911" which started with a quote by bin Laden describing American society as "the weakest known to civilization" (sic). Do you realise how the rest of the world perceive you when you apply such brutal unChristian methods as waterboarding. I hereby quote the Dalai Lama in a speech he gave shortly after 9/11:

"Many of the world's problems and conflicts arise because we have lost sight of the basic humanity that binds us all together as a human family. We tend to forget that despite the diversity of race, religion, culture, language, ideology and so forth, people are equal in their basic desire for peace and happiness; we all want happiness and do not want suffering. We strive to fulfil these desires as best we can. However as much as we praise diversity in theory, unfortunately often we fail to respect it in practice. In fact, our ability to embrace diversity becomes a major source of conflict among peoples."

Posted by: bothered at September 14, 2006 12:59 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.


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