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:
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
i. stand with israel
I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. Confident masculine voices telling me the enemy is everywhere and victory is near — I often find it affirming: there’s a reason I don’t think that way. Last spring, many right-wing commentators made much of a Bloomberg poll that asked Americans, “Are you more sympathetic to Netanyahu or Obama?” Republicans picked the Israeli prime minister over their own president, 67 to 16 percent. There was a lot of affected shock that things had come to this. Rush Limbaugh said of Netanyahu that he wished “we had this kind of forceful moral, ethical clarity leading our own country”; Mark Levin described him as “the leader of the free world.” For a few days there I yelled quite a bit in my car.
The one conservative radio show I do find myself enjoying is hosted by Dennis Prager. At the Thanksgiving dinner of American radio personalities (Limbaugh is your jittery brother-in-law, Michael Savage is your racist uncle, Hugh Hewitt is Hugh Hewitt) Dennis Prager is the turkey-carving patriarch trying to keep the conversation moderately high-minded. While Prager obviously doesn’t like liberals — “The gaps between the left and right on almost every issue that matters are in fact unbridgeable,” he has said — he often invites them onto his show for debate, which is rare among right-wing hosts. Yet his gently exasperated take on the Obama–Netanyahu matchup was among the least charitable: “Those who do not confront evil resent those who do.”
Average number of Americans who are injured by chain saws each year:
A farmer in Kenya bit a python who tried to eat him.
A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”