GENEVA — The Obama administration moved forcefully Thursday to distance itself from Bush administration policies, telling a United Nations panel that the ban on torture enshrined in a 1984 treaty that the U.S. signed applies worldwide and covers all people and places, including detention facilities abroad.
“The answer to the question whether the U.S. will abide by the universal ban on torture and cruel treatment in armed conflicts, or beyond U.S. borders, including Bagram and Guantanamo, is unequivocally, yes” said Mary McLeod, the acting legal adviser to the U.S. State Department, mentioning specifically detention centers in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, where allegations of mistreatment have been common.
The long-awaited clarification came in the closing minutes of a two-day session to review U.S. compliance with the 1984 Convention Against Torture.
“The understanding of this statement is the prohibition of torture is absolute for the American administration,” said Alessio Bruni, an Italian member of the U.N.’s 10-member Committee Against Torture, which oversees compliance of the 156 countries that have signed the accord.
Bruni told McClatchy that the statement makes acts of torture undertaken by U.S. officials anywhere in the world punishable as crimes under the treaty’s Article 4. U.S. officials cannot escape responsibility by transferring a prisoner to another country.
“This is black and white in their statement,” he said.
Earlier, McLeod had stated “the prohibition on torture is categorical, there are no gaps.”
The limits of U.S. policy toward the torture convention have been sharply debated since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. The Bush administration said that the treaty’s ban on torture did not apply to U.S. actions outside the United States and that U.S. legal jurisdiction did not extend to the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where it set up a prison for suspected terrorists. It also set up a series of secret detention centers run by the CIA in other countries where prisoners were subjected to harsh interrogation tactics.
The Obama administration since has renounced those positions generally, but this week’s statements were the first assertion of those positions before the U.N. committee that oversees the convention.
The committee welcomed the change but still expressed dissatisfaction with answers the administration gave on other issues related to treatment at Guantanamo and what forms of interrogation are permitted by the Army Field Manual, the guide that governs questioning and treatment of prisoners by all U.S. agencies.
Administration officials provided no answer to when the detention center at Guantanamo will be closed, and it rejected any private meetings between detainees there and the special U.N. expert on torture, Juan Mendes, who’s sought such sessions.
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