No Comment — October 7, 2010, 3:08 pm

Compensating Victims of Torture Should Be a Two-Way Street

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2015

The War of the World

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Sharp Edge of Life

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Great Republican Land Heist

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Captive Market

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Day of the Sea

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Great Republican Land Heist·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The wholesale transfer of public lands to state control may never be achieved. But the goal might be more subtle: to attack the value of public lands.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Sharp Edge of Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The struggle of the novelist has been to establish a measure, a view of human nature, and usually, though not always, as large a view as belief and imagination can wring from observable facts.”
Photo by Eddie Adams/Associated Press
Article
Captive Market·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Fear of random violence lives on, but the reality is that violent-crime rates have dropped to levels not seen since the early Seventies."
Photograph by Richard Ross
Article
The Day of the Sea·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Fifteen judges will then sit together in a wood-paneled room, in a city thousands of miles from the Andes, and decide whether the ocean Bolivia claims as its right will at last be returned to it.”
Photo by Fabio Cuttica/Contrasto/Redux
Post
Introducing the February Issue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ruin of the West
Christopher Ketcham investigates Cliven Bundy’s years-long battle with the BLM, Annie Murphy reflects on Bolivia’s lost coast, and more
Painting by Richard Prince, whose work was on view in October at Gagosian Gallery in New York City © The artist. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Percentage increase in the annual number of polio cases in Pakistan since 2005:

857

A bowl of 4,000-year-old noodles was found in northwestern China; and a spokesman for the Chinese Academy of Sciences said that “this is the earliest empirical evidence of noodles ever found.”

A federal judge sentenced the journalist Barrett Brown to 63 months in prison for sharing a link to information stolen from the private-intelligence firm Stratfor by a hacker in 2011. “Good news!” Brown said in a statement. “They’re now going to send me to investigate the prison-industrial complex.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today