U.N. Presses U.S. on Torture Policies

Anti-torture demonstrators performed a mock waterboarding outside the White House during the Bush years to protest CIA use of the technique. (Photo: flickr)

Appearing today before the United Nations Committee Against Torture, U.S. representatives acknowledged that the country’s legal obligations under a major anti-torture treaty apply to certain places outside the United States.

The position is a departure from the Bush administration’s, which said that the treaty only applied inside the United States. Tomorrow, U.N. Committee members are expected to press the United States to further clarify its position.

The U.S. is undergoing a two-day review of its compliance with the Convention Against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the U.S. ratified in 1994. Today, the Obama administration told the U.N. panel that the treaty applies to “certain areas beyond” its sovereign territory, and more specifically to places the U.S. government “controls as a governmental authority.” The administration said this includes the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay and registered ships and aircraft, but did not specify whether it covers situations like short-term or temporary custody or former CIA “black sites” in other countries.

“We’re pleased that the Obama administration has affirmed the global ban on torture and cruelty, but it must go a step further and clarify that its treaty obligations apply to all official U.S. conduct, especially where the U.S. has effective control abroad,” said ACLU Human Rights Program Director Jamil Dakwar, who is attending the proceedings in Geneva.

The committee is also questioning the U.S. delegation about accountability for U.S. torture, abuses and indefinite detention at Guantánamo, and lack of redress to survivors of torture. The committee also raised serious concerns about domestic policies including the widespread use of solitary confinement, militarization of policing and excessive use of force by law enforcement. The committee expressed additional concerns related to the expansion of family detention for migrants as well as abusive confinement conditions, especially for immigrants and specific groups such as women, juveniles, LGBT people, asylum seekers, and people on death row.

“We hope that the administration will live up to all of its responsibilities under this treaty by taking further action to end torture and cruelty at home and abroad, including concrete transparency and accountability measures to prevent torture and abuse from happening,” Dakwar said.

The ACLU’s detailed report to the committee highlighting areas where the U.S. has failed to uphold its treaty obligations is at:

A blog post written by Dakwar with an overview of the hearings is at:


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America’s original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.