As the first news of U.S.-sponsored torture became public years ago my immediate reaction was unquestionable, defined by distress and empathy.
I can't say, however, that my response included surprise. Having worked with for the compensation of human rights advocates in Haiti tortured and abused by the military during the 1994 coup, I understood such repulsive tactics as a regretful reality of conflict and war.
In an effort to distance their actions from torture, former Bush administration officials have defined their torture methods as harsh techniques. This change in semantics led me to ask is there is a difference and if it even matters? Both include the use of abject pain, harassment and, well, torture, of our enemies abroad during war.
The word we use is irrelevant, as both include the infliction of physical pain in an effort to obtain information. Unfortunately, we live in a world where state-sanction torture has flourished throughout history in both times of stability and war.
Torture and the legacy of harsh techniques as used by the Bush Administration have dominated recent news.
New accounts from the Department of Justice and FBI disclosed further information about U.S.-condoned and implemented torture under the Bush administration. Recent testimonies by a former FBI interrogator concluded the administration's torture techniques to be slow and unreliable.
The universality of state-sponsored torture makes it seem to me like an easy point of solidarity. I have never found it hard to link the ways that military and state police oppress certain groups in their domestic and international agendas through brute force and persecution. As politicians distance themselves from allegations of "un-American actions abroad," I have been reminded that, unfortunately, such cruel and unusual punishment has been used throughout our history as a method of repression, intimidation and control.
Within the U.S. we consistently see instances of state-sanctioned violence and brutality in communities of color. Beatings, unfounded arrests and harassment are common in Black and Latino communities in the U.S. How can these shared experiences increase international unity among oppressed people as we advocate for more just U.S. policies during war? And how would these policies change during times of peace?
What I fear most is the exceptions to the rule. The "precautionary" and sometimes most harmful things we do are in the name of protectionism, safety and morals. At this time we do not know the extent to which crimes were committed against innocent people in the name of freedom. But the larger question at issue seems to be how we hold ourselves accountable for these actions and how we can prevent human rights abuses.
Serendipitously, the U.S. was for the first time ever elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council last Tuesday. What better way to ensure the U.S., and their allies, maintain and uphold the highest standards of human rights both domestically and with respect to their foreign relations policies. The Bush Administration openly criticized the council because it has member that are openly critical of the U.S.
In response to criticism of the United States' use of torture techniques on terrorism suspects, UN Ambassador Susan Rice responded "…we intend to lead based on the strong, principled vision that the American people have about respecting human rights, supporting democracy." Hopefully Ms. Rice believes what she says and the Obama administration will be able to show leadership on the issue of torture.
Yes, the U.S. is guilty of extensive human rights abuses and torture both domestically and abroad. Yes, the U.S. ought to take full and complete responsibility for the torture condoned by the Bush administration. And yes we must support the Obama administration's active participation with the U.N. Human Rights Council as a next step in securing just and prudent foreign relations.
Nicole C. Lee is the executive director of TransAfrica Forum.