U.S. unwilling to unequivocally apply ban on prisoner abuse

The New York Times reports: A treaty ban on cruel treatment will restrict how the United States may treat prisoners in certain places abroad, the Obama administration is expected to tell the United Nations on Wednesday, according to officials.

That interpretation would change a disputed Bush administration theory that the cruelty ban does not apply abroad. But the Obama administration also stopped short of an unequivocal acceptance that the ban imposes legal obligations everywhere that American officials have a prisoner in their custody or control, as human rights advocates had urged it to say.

An American delegation will unveil the administration’s position in Geneva on Wednesday in a presentation before the United Nations Committee Against Torture. The panel, which monitors compliance with the United Nations Convention Against Torture, has asked whether the United States still takes the Bush-era view.

Most of the torture treaty contains no geographic limitations. But its ban on “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” that falls short of torture is one of several provisions that apply to a state’s conduct “in any territory under its jurisdiction.” That phrase is ambiguous, and the administration of President George W. Bush took the view that the ban did not apply beyond domestic soil.

The Obama administration, after an internal debate that has drawn global scrutiny, is taking the view that the cruelty ban applies wherever the United States exercises governmental authority, according to officials familiar with the deliberations. That definition, they said, includes the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and American-flagged ships and aircraft in international waters and airspace.

But the administration’s definition still appears to exclude places like the former “black site” prisons where the C.I.A. tortured terrorism suspects during the Bush years, as well as American military detention camps in Afghanistan and Iraq during the wars there. Those prisons were on the sovereign territory of other governments; the government of Cuba exercises no control over Guantánamo. [Continue reading…]

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