Q&A: Torture and International Law

What is the history of international laws against torture?

Akila: The prohibition on torture, at least in modern international law, began with the universal declaration on human rights that was passed in the 1960s and contained a general prohibition on torture and cruel and inhumane treatment. This prohibition was replicated in the 1970s in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Prohibitions on torture were also contained in the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

Around this time, in the 70s, Amnesty International began a campaign to get a declaration through the UN or another binding treaty body prohibiting torture.  Due to this campaign, in 1975 the UN passed a non-binding declaration on torture.  In the ten years after it passed, Amnesty did important documentation and individual reporting that found the declaration wasn't serving its purpose. This began the push and process of advocating for a stand-alone convention against torture. The Convention Against Torture was formally drafted in the early 1980s and was ratified by a number of states somewhere between the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Grant: It was opened up for ratification in 1988 and I believe it came to force in 1994, so it took six years for a critical mass of states to accept it and for it to become enforceable, which is pretty typical of any international treaty.  In writing the Convention the drafters very much had a traditional view of torture in mind. They were thinking of what we might think of as a James Bond-esque type of interrogation where there is one person under the control or custody of another person who wants information from that person either to use that information against them in a court of law or for whatever government purposes. So, when you read the Convention you see a lot of that type of language, regarding, formal interrogation by a state.

A: Yes, they were considering issues around the French engaging in torture against the Algerians in the 1950s, the British using torture against the Irish in their civil war, those were the recent experiences in people's minds, ideas of the state trying to elicit information. This is also what we see in the US today, when people think of the torture they think of Bush Administration, of water boarding, etc.

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Trump could be committing serious war crimes and crimes against humanity

by Eva Marie Wüst Vestergaard

Over the course of the campaign trail, US president elect Donald Trump suggested many proposals on how to defeat ISIS. Many of which, including the use of torture, drone strikes, and nuclear weapons, would violate international law if fulfilled.

Trump has previously criticized the US for their politically correctness in the fight against ISIS, and he has instead offered proposals that if enacted, would constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In one proposal, Trump approves torture as a tool in the war against terrorists. In an interview for NBC he said, “Well I’m not looking to break any news on your show, but frankly the waterboarding, if it was up to me, and if we changed the laws or have the laws, waterboarding would be fine,”. Trump supported this with the argument that ISIS do not follow the law; “You know, we work within laws. They don’t work within laws – they have no laws. We work within laws. The waterboarding would be fine, and if they could expand the laws, I would do a lot more than waterboarding.”

Waterboarding is an act of torture and hence violates the Convention against Torture and the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits torture and bounds parties in armed conflicts to treat hostages humanely. Torture is immoral because it dehumanizes people. Not just the tortured but also the torturers are severely affected.

Using torture as a tool in war would also have negative consequences for the US as a state because it infringes on the global rule of law. Instead of a social system based on justice, the system would be based on force. This goes against the fundamental values, such as independence and democracy, on which America has been built and which define America’s strong role in the world today.

Even more alarming, in the war against terrorism, Trump has said he would take measures that would kill innocent people. The president elect has expressed willingness for using drone strikes and nuclear weapons to fight terrorists. In an interview with the Daily Mail, Trump said, “As far as drones are concerned, yes, to take out terrorists. The only thing is I want them to get it right. But to take out terrorists yes I think that is something I would continue to do.” In another interview for the MSNBC, he questioned the lack of using nuclear weapons against ISIS; “Somebody hits us within ISIS, you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke?”

Such actions would not merely hit ISIS but also civilians in war zones. A consequence which Trump did not seem to care for when proposing to hurt terrorists through their potentially innocent families in an interview with Fox News; "The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.”

Attacking civilians violates the Geneva Convention which prohibits attacks on civilians and bounds distinction between civilians and combatants. Non-combatants are innocent people that may not be supporting the conflict. This includes children, women and elderly. The US should not be recognized as a state that explicitly targets and kills innocents.

The intention to defeat ISIS is not a cover for committing illegal acts. Violating international law will not make America great, only worse. Therefore, it is more important than ever that America upholds its obligations to the international community and not break humanitarian law. It is equally important that the international community hold the US accountable if and when it commits such crimes.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

OMCT & GJC Report to CAT: Sri Lankan laws condone torture of women and girls

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—November 14, 2016

[NEW YORK and GEVENA (OMCT-GJC)] — Tomorrow, the Committee Against Torture (CAT), during its 59th session, will examine Sri Lanka’s fifth State party report. In October, the Global Justice Center (GJC) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) jointly submitted an alternative report focused on how Sri Lankan law violates the Convention Against Torture by banning abortion in most circumstances, and by authorizing rape in certain instances and child marriage.

Remembering ISIS' Crimes of Genocide Against Yazidis on the Anniversary of the Sinjar Massacre

by Jessica Zaccagnino

With the rise of non-state terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State, the strategic face of war has changed. This shift has subsequently altered the experience of civilians in armed conflict. In this changing landscape, women and girls face distinct horrors in comparison to men.

Groups such as ISIS have been perpetuating genocide against minorities in controlled territories, notably against the Yazidis. These violent extremists target women and men differently when committing crimes of genocide. In addition to systematic murder, ISIS subjects women to sexual slavery, forced marriages, rape, forced impregnation, and other gender-specific crimes of genocide. Despite the distinct tactics that are being used to commit genocide, the gender reality of genocide is often overlooked when enforcing the Genocide Convention. Global Justice Center’s Genocide Project fights against the gender-gap in responding to crimes of genocide perpetrated by extremist groups, like ISIS, and seeks to ensure that the laws of war work for, and not against, women.

On the morning of August 3rd, 2014, ISIS forces entered the Sinjar region in Northern Iraq, only months after declaring itself a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria. The region has a high population of Yazidi people, an ethno-religious Kurdish minority that has been heavily targeted by the ISIS insurgency. In Sinjar alone, 5,000 men were killed, thousands of women were systematically raped and sold into sexual slavery, and over 150,000 Yazidis were displaced. When ISIS took Sinjar, men and boys over the age of ten were separated from women and children, and most, as evidence of mass graves suggests, were killed. In the process of fleeing, an estimated 50,000 Yazidis were trapped in the Sinjar Mountains, with ISIS forces surrounding them. Although a majority of those trapped were able to eventually escape the mountainous region, the Sinjar Massacre left thousands dead, and thousands more enslaved. Yazidi women “have been systemically captured, killed, separated from their families, forcibly transferred and displaced, sold and gifted (and resold and re-gifted), raped, tortured, held in slavery and sexual slavery, forcibly married and forcibly converted.” These women have been targeted by ISIS solely on the basis of their gender and ethnicity, and such acts make clear ISIS’ genocidal intent to destroy the group in whole.

Despite the air drops of food, water, and supplies, the Yazidis trapped in the mountain siege survived in grim conditions—circumstances intended by ISIS to destroy the group. In addition to air drops, President Obama invoked the need to “prevent a potential act of genocide” as a justification for launching air strikes to rescue those trapped in the Sinjar Mountains. Just this year, Secretary of State John Kerry officially declared that ISIS is committing genocide. It is vital for the United States to recognize the unique aspects of genocide that specifically target gender within the persecution of Yazidis when taking action against ISIS. Although the United States has taken a big step in declaring ISIS’ genocide, the United States must move beyond words. In fact, the United States is required by the Genocide Convention to take action against genocide. Yet, as the two-year anniversary of Sinjar approaches on August 3rd, the United States has still not taken any necessary further steps to combat ISIS’ genocidal crimes.

GJC Published in Newsweek on Anniversary of Sinjar Massacre

Grant Shubin, a Staff Attorney at GJC, and Pari Ibrahim, the Founder and Executive Director of the Free Yazidi Foundation published an op-ed in Newsweek about the state of Yazidi women on the second anniversary of the Sinjar Massacre.

Click here to read the full article. 

NBC Nightly News Interview with Vian Dakhil

On Sunday, NBC Nightly News interviewed Vian Dakhil, the only Yazidi woman in the Iraqi Parliament. Over the past year, Dakhil has helped over 1,000 Yazidi women and girls escape from ISIS territory, where they have been routinely captured and enslaved by ISIS militants. Due to a lack of state action to protect the Yazidis from genocidal crimes, individuals such as Dakhil have been forced to act to help defend these vulnerable women.  In 2014, Dakhil made headlines with her impassioned speech to the Iraqi Parliament, where she cried, “My people are being slaughtered…I speak here in the name of humanity.  Save us! Save us!”. Her continued efforts to defend the Yazidis from ISIS atrocities have made her the number one woman on ISIS’s hit list. 

Human Rights Hypocrisy: Burma’s Lieutenant General Ko Ko, Suspected of Crimes Against Humanity, to Lead Burma’s Delegation to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review

In November 2014, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic published a legal memorandum revealing that Lieutenant General Ko Ko is one of the leading actors in crimes against humanity committed in Burma. Despite this comprehensive report, General Ko Ko has been appointed by Burma to lead its delegation to this year’s United Nations Universal Periodic Review. Every four years states are subject to this review process that provides states the opportunity to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situation in their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations.

To have General Ko Ko- a man explicitly linked to human rights violations- as the leader of Burma’s upcoming human rights review is sheer hypocrisy. As stated in Harvard Law’s Human Rights Blog “Human Rights @ Harvard Law,” “Ko Ko should not be the face of human rights in the new Myanmar.”

In response to Burma’s decision to have General Ko Ko lead their delegation to the UPR this fall, the U.S. Campaign for Burma has created a petition to add General Ko Ko to the U.S. Sanctions list.

As the petition states, “General Ko Ko has a long history of committing crimes against humanity and human rights abuses throughout Burma. During his post as Regional Commander in Karen State, tens of thousands of Karen fled for safer borders as they faced rape, extrajudicial murders, forced labor and portering, human shields and land grabs. Now, as Home Affairs Minister, General Ko Ko continues his attacks on any individual who supports democratic principles and desires justice. “

Sign the petition and tell President Obama to add General Ko Ko to the Specially Designated Nationals List.

Letter to the NY Times Editor, Rape in Syria, March 2014

Akila Radhakrishnan, Legal Director of the Global Justice Center, responds to an article in the New York Times, “Three Years of Strife and Cruelty Put Syria in Free Fall” that describes three years of conflict without mentioning the use of rape as a weapon of war.

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Global Policy, "The Other Red Line: The Use of Rape as an Unlawful Tactic of Warfare"

The Security Council has found that the endemic use of rape in war for military advantage – which is primarily targeted against women and girls – is a military tactic that presents a threat to global peace and security. Despite concerted global efforts over the last two decades to end its use, rape as a tool of war continues undeterred. This article links the intransigent use of strategic rape with states’ failure to treat it as an unlawful tactic of war under the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) that regulate the 'means and methods of war’. Embedding strategic rape under IHL’s weapons framework will increase its stigmatization, a critical factor in stopping the use of abhorrent weapons or tactics in war. Other potential benefits include the opening up of civil and criminal accountability frameworks and others which provide restitution and reparations for war rape victims. This article focuses on the role of all states in enforcing the weapons framework and it calls for states to undertake an impact and injuries assessment of strategic rape under the Article 36 weapons review process.

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Burma Military Violates International Law

In November, the Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School released a legal memorandum,“War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity in Eastern Myanmar.” The report was a result of a four-year investigation on the Burma military and examines the conduct of the military during an offensive that cleared and forcibly relocated civilian populations from conflict zones in eastern Burma. Collected evidence demonstrates that the actions of Burma Army personnel during the Offensive constitute crimes under international criminal law: attacking and displacing civilians, murder, torture, and other inhumane acts.

© By Burma Partnership

The Clinic also collected evidence relevant to the war crime of rape. Secondhand accounts of rapes committed by military personnel were recorded. Some interviewees spoke generally of soldiers raping Karen women but provided no specific accounts. Rape is both a war crime and a crime against humanity, according to the Rome Statute. However, it was concluded that more research and analysis are necessary to determine whether these crimes could be included in a criminal case associated with the Offensive.

Rule of law is limited in Burma, and the military enjoys constitutionally-guaranteed impunity for war crimes, including against the use of rape as a weapon of war. Burma’s new Constitution has been fully in place since 2011 and was deliberately designed to preclude democracy by embedding permanent military rule and preventing military officials from being held accountable for their crimes.

GJC calls on the international community to invest in a democratic future for Burma by insisting that the Burmese government dismantle these structural barriers which violate international law and prevent the advancement of true peace and democracy.

“A Devastating Year for Children”

This year has been one of the worst years for children, according to the United Nations. “As many as 15 million children are caught up in violent conflicts in the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, the State of Palestine, Syria and Ukraine,” said the Unicef’s report. “Globally, an estimated 230 million children currently live in countries and areas affected by armed conflicts.

“This has been a devastating year for millions of children,” said Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director. “Children have been killed while studying in the classroom and while sleeping in their beds; they have been orphaned, kidnapped, tortured, recruited, raped and even sold as slaves. Never in recent memory have so many children been subjected to such unspeakable brutality.”

© UNICEF

In the Central African Republic, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, South Sudan, Nigeria millions of children are affected by ongoing conflicts. Young girls are being kidnapped, tortured, forcibly impregnated, forced marriages, withheld from education, raped and turned into sex slaves. Half the victims of rape in conflict zones are children.

The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict that took place in London this June recognized that rape and sexual violence in conflict often has a much bigger impact than the fighting itself, and that one should not underestimate the depth of damage done to individual rape victims. “Sexual violence in conflict zones includes extreme physical violence, the use of sticks, bats, bottles, the cutting of genitals, and the sexual torture of victims who are left with horrific injuries. Many die as a result of these attacks. But survivors can also face a catastrophic rejection by their families and may be cast out from their communities”.

Compounding the suffering is a US foreign policy that denies safe abortion services to girls raped in armed conflict. GJC’s August 12th Campaign challenges this routine denial of full medical rights to war rape victims as a violation of the right to non- discriminatory medical care under the Geneva Conventions and its Additional Protocols.

Young girls who become victims of rape used as weapon of war are forced to bear the child of their rapist. This also is an “unspeakable brutality”.

Obama’s Visit Highlights Changes Still Necessary in Burma

On November 13th, 2014 President Barack Obama held a town hall at Yangoon University in Burma. During the event, protesters held up signs that read, “Reform is Fake,” “Illusion,” and in reference to Obama’s own campaign slogan, “Change?”

Obama himself addressed the signs at the beginning of his remarks, reading them aloud and assuring protesters that they would have time for questions at the end of the town hall where he could address their concerns.

The New York Times, in their article of the event, used pictures of the town hall but made no mention of the signs. The protest and its glossing over by major media outlets demonstrates the fraught relationship that many are having with the Burmese government as it inches towards democracy, accountability, and equality.

While there have been legitimate reforms that have enabled the United States to engage with the Burmese government on a diplomatic level, full reform and rule of law in Burma cannot be established while the constitution places the military outside of civilian control.

As Zin Mar Aung said in an Op Ed in the Irrawaddy Journal,

“Before fully embracing the Burmese government as a democratic partner, the United States must revisit its carrot and stick policy, which has, of late, been much more carrot than stick. Instead of a credible “stick,” we have seen an overall lack of accountability toward the regime.”

These sentiments reiterate statements from Global Justice Center, President, Janet Benshoof, from over a year ago.

“Despite this disturbing evidence of ongoing human rights abuses, military attacks on ethnic civilians, inconsistencies between government statements and actions…the global community continues to ignore or downplay both the significance of these violations as well as the limitations of the constitution.”

Though there have been democratic reforms and fragile advances, the reality is that military rule still prevails in Burma, armed conflict continues and the military enjoys constitutional-guaranteed impunity for war crimes. The Global Justice Center has long called on the United States and the international community to insist that the Burmese government dismantle the structural barriers in place that prevent true peace and democracy.

At the end of the town hall, Obama was asked what he would do if he was President of Burma to help the country develop, he responded,

“Number one, there needs to be an election next year. It shouldn’t be delayed. Number two, there should be constitutional amendments that ensure a transition over time to a fully civilian government. Number three, there needs to be laws put in place to protect freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom to politically organize.”

Though he is not President of Burma, there is still much Obama can do to help achieve these commendable objectives, by using diplomatic pressure, supporting capacity building, policy dialogue and calling for accountability for human rights abuses.

Republicans Congress Threatens Women Worldwide

Republicans in Congress are committed to efforts to drain U.S. aid from international family planning programs. Now, as they are freed from the knowledge that a Senate controlled by Democrats would surely block their most extreme measures, they can succeed and harm women worldwide. The United States should be increasing, not decreasing, its current investment of $610 million in funding to international family planning programs, which already prohibit the use of U.S. foreign aid to provide safe abortions “as a method of family planning.”

The prohibition, introduced in 1973 as part of the Helms Amendment, does not define what constitutes “family planning,” yet Republican and Democratic administrations, including Mr. Obama’s, have treated it as a total ban on funding of abortion under any circumstance. As a result, help is denied to women and girls who are victims of rape or whose lives are threatened by carrying a pregnancy to term.

However, there’s still some light at the end of the tunnel, even despite the serious threats posed by this new Congress to women around the world, The President doesn’t need congressional approval to reinterpret the Helms Amendment. The President should act to clarify that the law allows aid to be used to provide safe abortion to women and girls raped in armed conflict.

GJC urges President Obama to issue an executive order lifting U.S. abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid for girls and women raped in armed conflict. Mr. Obama should use his executive authority to end a longstanding misinterpretation of the Helms Amendment, which prohibits foreign aid money from being used to “pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.”

After all, the denial of abortion violates the medical care guarantees of international humanitarian law and the absolute prohibition on gender discrimination under international humanitarian law. It also constitutes torture and cruel treatment in violation of international humanitarian law.

Lift the Ban. Save lives.

End Torture

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. ratifying the UN Convention Against Torture. By formally accepting this treaty 20 years ago, the U.S. Government made a commitment to end the use of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Yet to this day, the U.S. repeatedly fails to meet its commitments under the treaty with its abortion restrictions on foreign assistance to girls and women raped in armed conflict.

© UNHRN

In advance of the 53rd session of the Committee against Torture convening on November 3 in Geneva, the GJC and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) submitted a Shadow Report on “US Abortion Restrictions on Foreign Assistance that Deny Safe Abortion Services to Women and Girls Raped in Armed Conflict” to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) that monitors implementation of the Convention. Forty three other reports were submitted through the USHRN (U.S. Human Rights Network) to the Committee as well.

Rape is torture. Forcing women to carry the child of their rapist by denying safe abortion services to war rape victims results in extended and intensified physical and psychological suffering. It is a legal and moral imperative to provide all necessary medical care, including abortion services, to war rape survivors. Currently, as a result of the Helms Amendment, the US has a “no abortion” policy placed on all US foreign aid. GJC & OMCT in their Shadow Report urge the Committee Against Torture to call on the United States to reassess and change this policy that is in violation of the convention.

CAT Day of Action  © UNHRN

Today, GJC is participating in the CAT Day of Action. Next month, human rights activists will gather for the United Nations’ review of the U.S. Government’s compliance with the Convention Against Torture. Join GJC in urging President Obama to issue an Executive Order overturning the Helms Amendment on the 20th anniversary of US ratifying CAT.

Stop Violence. End Torture.