Opening Statement for U.S. Hearing at Committee Against Torture
Assistant Secretary for Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
May 5, 2006
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, ladies and gentlemen: My name is Barry Lowenkron. I am the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State. Six years ago, in 2000, my government appeared before this Committee to present its initial report on U.S. implementation of the Convention Against Torture. My predecessor emphasized the importance the United States Government attaches to full compliance with all our international human rights treaty obligations. I am here to continue that tradition, and have the honor of introducing the head of our delegation, John Bellinger, the Legal Adviser of the Department of State.
On the topic of this hearing, my government's position is clear: U.S. criminal law and treaty obligations prohibit torture, and the United States will not engage in or condone it anywhere. As the President said in 2004:
". . . Torture is wrong no matter where it occurs, and the United States will continue to lead the fight to eliminate it everywhere"
My country is committed to upholding our national and international obligations to eradicate torture and to prevent cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. We also are committed to transparency about our policies and actions, and we hope other countries will be equally forthcoming. This is not just a legal obligation -- we are fulfilling a higher moral obligation, which our nation has embraced since its earliest days. Indeed, the United States is proud that it was among the leaders in the international community who established the Convention against Torture.
Our nation was founded on the principle of respect for human dignity. Our Constitution's first ten amendments - the Bill of Rights -- are the covenant between our Government and citizens for the protection of their rights. The Bill of Rights spells out several protections that are reflected in the Convention Against Torture. These safeguards include the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. These protections have endured for over two centuries and they have continually been strengthened.
Firm U.S. Commitment to Investigate and Prosecute Abuses
The United States has a long tradition of international leadership against torture. As the most senior officials of my government have repeatedly affirmed, and as we will make clear again today, when allegations of torture arise - including allegations against government officials - they are investigated and, if substantiated, prosecuted. Our commitment to protecting individuals from abuses does not stop with torture. My government is similarly committed to investigating and prosecuting credible allegations of other such forms of unlawful treatment against persons in custody of law enforcement - including in the War on Terror.
Abuses, such as those that notoriously occurred at Abu Ghraib, sickened the American people - just as they appalled people around the world. They were inexcusable and indefensible. The United States government and people sincerely regret these incidents and have taken steps to hold people accountable. In fact, my government has carried out more than 600 criminal investigations into allegations of mistreatment, and more than 250 individuals have been held accountable for detainee abuse. Their punishments have included courts-martial, prison terms for as long as ten years, formal reprimands and separation from our military services. And as recent headlines show, the investigations and charges continue.
Transparency and Self-Corrective Mechanisms
As this record reflects, when we make mistakes, we take corrective measures. Our system is designed to do just that.
Investigations and law enforcement mechanisms operating under law are an important, but not the only, means to address allegations of torture or other mistreatment. We are an open society. I am sure you have read about or seen the vigorous public debate in my country about allegations of abuses and how best to prevent future problems. Our media, our civil society organizations, and our citizens' groups, all have spoken to these issues, and the government has listened and made changes.
For example, more than 1,000 international journalists have now traveled to Guantanamo to learn about detainee operations there. A parliamentary group from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe visited Guantanamo and one of its members later told journalists it was a "model prison." Further, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross said recently that conditions at the facility had "improved considerably" and that the ICRC was satisfied with its access to detainees there.
Our system of government provides for other means of improving our policies and practices. Our Constitution's system of checks and balances relies on the separation and independence of the three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial. The push and pull between the branches has led to specific reforms. The Courts have rendered decisions and the Congress has passed legislation such as the Detainee Treatment Act, which John Bellinger will discuss.
Concrete U.S. Actions to Combat Torture Around the World
A vital part of our efforts to combat torture worldwide entails engagement with other nations on their human rights situations. In the annual reports on country situations prepared by my bureau at the State Department, we devote substantial attention to the issue of torture. A number of key non-governmental organizations stated that the U.S. "pulled no punches" in the Human Rights Reports assessments - even of allies and friends. These reports are very useful in our bilateral efforts to persuade nations to improve their own policies, and they are often used by non-governmental groups or the citizens of those countries for the same end.
My government also engages in a multilateral activities designed to reduce and ultimately eliminate torture globally. At the UN Commission on Human Rights, for example, the U.S. played a central role in the adoption of country-specific and thematic resolutions related to torture. We have supported the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture throughout the world. We did invite him and several of his colleagues to visit our military detention facilities in Guantanamo -- an invitation they regrettably declined. Although the U.S. is not seeking a seat in the new UN Human Rights Council this year, we intend to remain actively engaged with that body, supporting resolutions, contributing to its funding, and ensuring that it can play a positive role on key matters such as ending torture.
Ladies and gentlemen, in conclusion, the U.S. commitment to end torture worldwide stems from my country's most cherished values. All branches of my government have advanced this goal through sustained, intensive effort. We have devoted substantial policy attention and financial resources to it. We also welcome the crucial contributions to this effort of others throughout the international community -- whether they are national or international activists, non-governmental organizations or civil society organizations, members of the media, faith-based organizations, or concerned citizens. Even when their criticisms are directed against our government, we understand and appreciate that they do so on behalf of an objective we all share: ending torture forever.
In furtherance of this objective, we anticipate a vigorous and constructive dialogue with this Committee. With that, I am happy to turn the microphone over to John Bellinger for his opening remarks and overview of how we will be responding to the questions we received from the Committee. Thank you.