SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
When American citizens are victims of torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading teatment by foreign governments, the United States sometimes presses their claims to compensation aggressively, under the Convention Against Torture (CAT) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), insisting on large settlements from the governments that abused them. A good example was in the agreement, announced on September 11, between the United States and Iraq. Neither side would publicly disclose the amount of the payment, designed to provide reparations to Americans who were imprisoned, abused, and tortured by the government of Saddam Hussein, but the Christian Science Monitor reported that it amounted to $400 million.
When the tables are turned and the United States is the torturer or abuser of the citizens of foreign states, things are different. Recently, the Justice Department has vigorously opposed all efforts by victims of its torture and abuse policies to obtain compensation for their mistreatment. It does so even when acknowledging the abuse and even when the victim was completely innocent—witness the cases of the Canadian computer engineer Maher Arar and the German greengrocer Khaled El-Masri. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald calls this “American exceptionalism”; I would call it the American doctrine of asymmetrical lawfare—we use international law instruments to secure compensation for our own citizens and steadfastly refuse to be held to the same standards ourselves.
Now the International Center for Transitional Justice has released a new study, “After Torture: U.S. Accountability and the Right to Redress,” which unravels the United States’ defensive posture with respect to claims by victims of torture step by step:
Under the [CAT and ICCPR], signatories like the United States are required to provide redress (reparation) to victims of such serious rights violations. The United States has publicly lauded this principle as it applies to other countries and has offered significant financial and political support to torture victims of foreign regimes; yet it has failed to acknowledge or address its obligation to victims of its own detention- and interrogation-related rights violations in counterterrorism operations.
When the United Nations (UN) Committee against Torture questioned the United States about its obligation to provide redress to torture victims, the government’s response in 2005 was that victims could pursue civil litigation in U.S. courts or file claims under the Foreign Claims Act (FCA), by which the military provides compensation for harms to civilians. Yet neither of these has proven successful for most victims of U.S. abuses in the counterterrorism context. Non-citizen detainees’ civil claims have been stymied by procedural roadblocks and defenses couched as national security concerns that have been zealously pursued by government attorneys. A number of cases have been dismissed without ever reaching a hearing on the merits because courts have repeatedly declined to hear cases in which the government asserts that state secrets, classified evidence, evaluations of foreign policy, or national security issues are involved. Additionally, cases have been dismissed because government officials are protected by legal immunities. For its part, the FCA excludes claims from people deemed unfriendly to the United States, who did not file a claim within two years after the incident, or who were held or interrogated by the CIA or other nonmilitary personnel. Nor is the FCA a reparative scheme; it fails on essential components of redress such as acknowledgment of wrongdoing.
If the United States really wants to resume its posture of leadership in the international community, it needs to think seriously about agreeing to the same standards of compensation that it imposes on other nations. The deal with Iraq looks suspiciously like the sort of bargain a colonial power would strike with one of its supine possessions struggling to be free. But for that very reason, it provides a useful yardstick to be used against the United States when it comes to compensating Iraqis and others seriously mistreated in the war on terror.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.
In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”