U.S. Meeting with U.N. Committee Against Torture

May 5, 2006

Opening Remarks

John B. Bellinger, III
Legal Adviser, U.S. Department of State
Geneva, Switzerland
May 5, 2006

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Members of the Committee,
Members of Civil Society and Other Observers,

My name is John Bellinger. I am the Legal Adviser of the Department of State, and I serve as head of the United States delegation to the Committee Against Torture.

The United States recognizes the importance of our international legal obligations and the key role this Committee plays in the treaty-monitoring process. The United States greatly appreciates this opportunity to meet with the Committee and to explain the measures we have taken to give effect to the obligations we have undertaken as a State Party to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Secretary of State Rice has emphasized that the United States takes its international obligations seriously. This is reflected in the great lengths to which we have gone to provide you with an extensive report and thorough answers to the many questions you have posed. Our delegation is composed of senior-level officials involved in implementing the Convention. This further demonstrates our commitment not only to fulfilling our obligations under the Convention, but also to engaging in what we expect will be a productive dialogue with you.

At the outset I want to reiterate the United States Government's absolute commitment to upholding our national and international obligations to eradicate torture and to prevent cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment worldwide. The President of the United States has made clear that "[t]orture anywhere is an affront to human dignity everywhere" and that "freedom from torture is an inalienable human right." Beyond the protections in our Constitution that Mr. Lowenkron mentioned, United States criminal laws prohibit torture. There are no exceptions to this prohibition. Within the United States, our 50 states and the federal government prohibit conduct that would constitute torture under their civil and criminal laws. Our Congress has also passed laws that provide for severe federal sanctions, both civil and criminal, against those who engage in torture outside the territory of the United States.

And our laws have gone further. Our focus on eradicating torture and punishing its perpetrators would be incomplete without a parallel effort to help its victims recover from abuses. The United States has comprehensive legislation that enables citizens and non-citizens of the United States who are victims of torture to bring claims for damages against foreign government officials in U.S. federal courts. Congress has also established and funded programs that assist victims of torture, domestically and overseas. The United States has contributed far more than any other country in the world to the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. For the years 2000 through 2005, U.S. contributions to the Fund totaled more than 32 million dollars, which is approximately 70% of the total contributions during that period.

And late last year, our Congress enacted, and the President signed into law, the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005. The Act included a provision that codified in law our already-existing policy against the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as that term is defined under the obligations the United States assumed under the Convention. The law provides that no person "in the custody or under the physical control of the United States Government, regardless of nationality or physical location" shall be subjected to cruel, unusual, and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by certain provisions of the U.S. Constitution. The enactment of the Detainee Treatment Act highlights our nation's commitment to upholding the values of freedom and humanity on which it was founded.

We know that you will have many questions about actions the U.S. Government has taken in response to the terrorist attacks upon our country on September 11. We welcome this dialogue and we are committed to addressing your questions as fully as possible. As we attempt to answer your questions, I would like to ask the Committee to bear in mind a few considerations.

First, some of the matters that are addressed by your questions are the subject of ongoing litigation, and I hope you will understand that our ability to comment in detail on such matters is necessarily constrained.

Second, like other governments, we are not in a position to comment publicly on alleged intelligence activities.

Third, our Second Periodic report and the written answers to your questions contain extensive information about U.S. detainee operations in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is the view of the United States that these detention operations are governed by the law of armed conflict, which is the lex specialis applicable to those operations.

As a general matter, countries negotiating the Convention were principally focused on dealing with rights to be afforded to people through the operation of ordinary domestic legal processes and were not attempting to craft rules that would govern armed conflict.

At the conclusion of the negotiation of the Convention, the United States made clear "that the convention . . . was never intended to apply to armed conflicts. . . ." The United States emphasized that having the Convention apply to armed conflicts "would result in an overlap of the different treaties which would undermine the objective of eradicating torture."[1] No country objected to this understanding.

In any case, regardless of the legal analysis, torture is clearly and categorically prohibited under both human rights treaties and the law of armed conflict. The obligation to prevent cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment is in Article 16 of the Convention and in similar provisions in the law of armed conflict.

While the United States maintains its view that the law of armed conflict is the lex specialis governing the detainee operations that we will discuss, we are pleased to provide extensive information about these operations in a sincere spirit of cooperation with the Committee.

In closing I would like to make two final comments.

First, while I am acutely aware of the innumerable allegations that have appeared in the press and in other fora about various U.S. actions, I would ask you not to believe every allegation that you have heard. Allegations about various U.S. military or intelligence activities have become so hyperbolic as to be absurd. Critics will now accept virtually any speculation and rumor and circulate them as fact. The U.S. Government has attempted to address as many of these allegations as quickly and as fully as possible. And yet, as much as we would like to deny the numerous inaccurate charges made against our government, because many of the accusations relate to alleged intelligence activities, we have found that we cannot comment upon them except in a general way.

Second, even as we recognize matters of concern to the Committee, we ask that the Committee keep a sense of proportion and perspective. While it is important to deal with problems in a straightforward manner, it does a disservice to the quality of our dialogue, to the treaty monitoring process, to the United States, and, ultimately, to the cause of combating torture around the world to focus exclusively on the allegations and relatively few actual cases of abuse and wrongdoing that have occurred in the context of the U.S. armed conflict with al Qaeda. I do not mean to belittle or shift attention away from these cases in any way. We welcome your questions. But we suggest that this Committee should not lose sight of the fact that these incidents are not systemic. We also suggest that the Committee devote adequate time in these discussions to examining the treatment or conditions that apply domestically with respect to a country of more than 290 million people. The United States is committed to rule of law and has a well-functioning legal system to ensure criminal and civil accountability.

We will now begin to answer the questions you have posed to us. In light of time constraints on this oral presentation, it will be impossible for us to reply in detail to every aspect of your wide-ranging questions. In many cases, we will refer you to the more detailed responses we have provided in writing.

Thank you very much.

[1] U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1984, March 9, 1984.