U.S. must not ignore its own acts of torture Conduct condemned when occurring abroad is not criminalized here

October 18, 1998|By Elisa Massimino

Recently, Amnesty International began a yearlong campaign aimed at addressing human rights violations in the United States. The centerpiece of the campaign is a 150-page report that covers a wide range of issues and makes dozens of policy recommendations. It devotes considerable attention to police brutality and brutality in prisons, but it misses an important opportunity to urge that these acts be prosecuted as torture.

In 1994, the United States ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture. This treaty requires each country to "take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture." Torture is defined in Article 1 of the treaty as "any act by which severe pain or suffering I is intentionally inflicted on a person I when such pain or suffering is inflicted by I a public official or other person acting in an official capacity."

In supporting the treaty, the Senate mentioned the need to demonstrate "clearly and unequivocally U.S. opposition to torture and U.S. determination to take steps to eradicate it." Following up on that promise, Congress passed a federal law allowing prosecution in U.S. courts of those who commit torture abroad if they are found in the United States.

Paradoxically, Congress has failed to enact, or consider, a statute to formally criminalize torture when it occurs in the United States. Though many acts constituting torture are susceptible to prosecution under state penal laws and federal civil rights statutes, torture is not a criminal offense if it takes place in the United States.

Last year, when New York City police officers allegedly beat Haitian immigrant Abner Louima and sodomized him with a toilet plunger, rights groups and the news media condemned the attack as "torture."

But because it took place in the United States, the officers involved were charged not with torture but with first-degree assault, aggravated sexual abuse and federal civil rights violations. The same conduct, when engaged in by police in other countries, is rightly condemned by the U.S. State Department in its annual reports on foreign human-rights practices as "torture."

"Torture" is a powerful word, and we should not shrink from using it, even when it applies to government officials and law enforcement agents in the United States. Both federal and state laws should be amended explicitly to outlaw torture committed in the United States.

At the federal level, President Clinton should begin by issuing an executive order instructing U.S. law enforcement agencies of their obligation under the Convention Against Torture to prevent and punish such acts wherever they might be committed. This should include explicit instructions to government prosecutors that no government lawyer should knowingly offer as evidence any statement that was obtained through torture, whether here or abroad.

Though the Convention Against Torture was ratified at the federal level, much of the official torture that goes on in the United States is committed by state and local officials. It is urgent, therefore, that the Clinton administration make it a priority to begin educating state and local government officials, many of whom might be unaware that they will be held accountable for violations of the international prohibition against torture.

Once torture committed inside the United States is explicitly criminalized, consistent prosecutions for violations probably would lead to deterrence. Law enforcement and other officials in the United States who commit acts of torture should be prosecuted under the same section of the U.S. code as foreign torturers found within our borders.

Amnesty International's new report should serve as a catalyst to all who assume that official torture does not happen in the United States. It does. When the U.S. government files its first (and long overdue) report to the United Nations, which monitors compliance with the Convention Against Torture, it should recognize that fact. One hopes that the government also will be able to point to concrete progress toward eradicating torture in the United States. A good first step would be to make torture illegal.

Elisa Massimino is the director of the Washington office of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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