Despite Obama's guidelines, torture remains possible

1 April 2009

Despite Obama's guidelines, torture remains possible

The United States' 'Guantanamo policy' remains unchanged under President Obama, according to human rights activists. In broad terms this is correct, argues Harry van Bommel. Obama's new guidelines mean that interrogation methods described by the Red Cross as 'torture' will continue to be possible.

by Harry van Bommel, Member of Parliament and foreign affairs spokesman for the SP

Reports that the CIA employ interrogation methods which count as torture are nothing new. Their source on this occasion is new, however. The Red Cross never makes public precisely what it comes across in prisons, because if it did so the organisation would have no further opportunity to see that the Geneva Convention was being respected.

That a report from this neutral organisation has now been leaked represents a threat to its work. It does, however, present a unique chance to settle accounts with the illegal and unacceptable treatment of prisoners.

Two special UN rapporteurs will conduct an investigation into the CIA detention centres. This is vitally necessary, bearing in mind the revelation by the Red Cross that in these centres detainees have been tortured by being beaten, subject to extremes of cold, and almost drowned. The rapporteurs are calling on all governments to help them in their investigations, which are aimed also at ensuring that such methods will not be used in the future.

The fear that they will be is far from fanciful. The new US government has promised to close down Guantanamo Bay, but unfortunately this promise still leaves too many possibilities for continued illegal imprisonment and for the maltreatment of those detained, as can been seen by closely studying the guidelines signed by Obama on 22nd January.

Firstly, the guidelines declaring torture to be illegal apply to armed conflicts but not to counter-insurgency operations. This distinction is important in the context of Afghanistan. A recently leaked policy note from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the country, a force of which the Dutch military forms part, gives details of stipulations for army spokespeople. These talk of the training of the Afghan army for counterinsurgency operations.

In another of Obama's directives a distinction is drawn between "armed conflict” and "anti-terrorism operations." The US ban on torture does not, in fact, apply to prisoners suspected of terrorism or of guerrilla actions.

Another section of the directive states that CIA prisons must be closed. But facilities where prisoners are held for short periods are explicitly excluded. Moreover, facilities which fall under the aegis of federal institutions such as the FBI or the army are not mentioned.

The prison in the Afghan town of Bagram, for example, is managed by the US army. Six hundred people are incarcerated there and an extension is being constructed enabling it to hold a further five hundred. Some of these people are non-Afghans who were subject to 'rendition', taken there on secret CIA flights. The Red Cross has been given only limited access and this older prison has been christened 'Guantanamo Bay 2'.

Lastly, the bans on torture in the US army's handbook are not all-embracing. Some formulations are even ambiguous and they certainly leave open the possibility that prisoners may be subjected to solitary confinement.

Obama's directives do at the very least guarantee that some prisoners will be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. The UN rapporteurs must not therefore restrict themselves to CIA prisons.


The Dutch government has always, as one would hope, resisted the Americans' treatment of prisoners in a way which contravenes international law, and will therefore be as pleased as I am to see Guantanamo Bay closed as well as by the establishment of these new guidelines.

This is not, however, enough. The Netherlands last week hosted an important international conference on the future of Afghanistan and is therefore fully involved in policy concerning the treatment of prisoners. In the parliamentary debate following the conference I will be putting this issue on the agenda.

The fight against terrorism and the reconstruction of Afghanistan demand at the very least respect for international law and for the Geneva Convention. The Red Cross's leaked report should serve as a basis for us to take up this challenge.

This article first appeared in the Christian daily newspaper the Reformatorisch Dagblad on 1st April 2009.

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