Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Human Rights USA Urges President-elect Obama to Keep His Promise to Put an End to Torture

In response to recent news reports indicating that the Obama administration will abandon any prospect of initiating criminal investigations and prosecutions into detainee abuse and torture, Human Rights USA, in partnership with the Torture Abolition Support and Survivors' Coalition (TASSC) and the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT), as well as nearly twenty other human rights advocates and organizations, is asking the next administration to keep the option of criminal investigations and prosecutions on the table.

As the President-elect continues to appoint candidates for top-level cabinet posts and finalize his policy goals, Human Rights USA and other human rights advocates ask him to keep his promise to putting an end to torture by the United States Government. In order to demonstrate his commitment to ending torture, President-elect Obama must make it clear that America will not tolerate impunity for torture.

The groups have asked President-elect Obama, when the time comes, to direct his Attorney General to appoint independent counsel to investigate and, where warranted, prosecute top officials responsible for approving or directing the use of torture and other forms of unlawful treatment against detainees during the "war on terror."

Human Rights USA, in collaboration with TASSC, has been drafting a criminal complaint to support its request for criminal investigations and prosecutions (where warranted) of U.S. officials responsible for authorizing or directing detainee abuse and torture. For more information about this project, please contact Colleen Costello at ccostello [at] humanrightsusa.org.

A PDF version of the letter is available here. The full text of the letter follows:

December 2, 2008

The Honorable Barack Obama
President-elect of the United States
1800 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20405
Fax: (202) 228-5417

Presidential Transition Office
Kluczynski Federal Building
230 S. Dearborn Street, 38th Floor
Chicago, IL 60604

Re: Accountability for Torture and Other Violations
of U.S. and International Law

Dear President-elect Obama:

Congratulations on your historic election to become the 44th President of the United States. Americans have expressed their overwhelming confidence in your ability to lead our country to realizing its full potential.

We write to you today as human rights advocates to express our appreciation for your long-standing commitment to human and civil rights. From the beginning of your campaign, you have said that one of your main priorities as President will be to restore America’s moral stature in the world. Americans’ faith in its leaders was shaken by the United States Government’s response to the terror attacks of September 11th. The irresponsible policies of the past seven years have diminished the United States’ reputation as a world leader in advancing and protecting human rights. Our country went from being a beacon of liberty to a leading purveyor of torture.

With the prospect of a new administration, guided by your leadership, Americans are hopeful that things will change – for the better. We believe that under your administration, the rule of law will receive the respect it deserves. Recently, you renewed your pledge to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, which is a significant – and commendable – first step in renewing our nation’s commitment to its human rights obligations. As you said, following the passage of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, fundamental human rights should be bigger than politics.

We agree.

But, President-elect Obama, we are concerned by recent news reports that seem to indicate that politics may yet trump human rights under your administration. In an article published by the Associated Press on Tuesday, November 18th, two of your advisers, who asked to remain anonymous, reported that there is “little – if any – chance that [your] Justice Department will go after anyone involved in authorizing or carrying out interrogations that provoked worldwide outrage.”[1]

Following the nomination of Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General, you asked, “[h]ow, if we are willing to rationalize torture through legalisms and semantics, can we claim to our children, and the children of the world, that America is different, and represents a higher moral standard?” Let us put this question another way: How, if we are willing to allow people – representatives of our government, at that – to torture with impunity, can we claim to future generations that America is different, and represents a higher moral standard?

If Our Goal is to End Torture, Here is What We Need to Do

You have said, throughout your campaign and in the weeks after your election, that putting an end to torture was among your priorities for your administration. The policies pursued by our government over the past several years have set a dangerous precedent that is likely to be repeated by future administrations – unless we set a minimum standard that puts future generations on notice that this country does not, and will not, tolerate impunity for torturers.

We are asking for you, and for other members of your new administration, to take your commitment to protecting human rights one step further: please put “justice” back in the Justice Department. We are not asking you to make a formal commitment to prosecutions of specific individuals. We are asking you, at this point in time, to keep the option of criminal investigations and prosecutions on the table.

When the time comes, direct your Attorney General to appoint independent counsel to initiate an investigation into criminal wrongdoing by government officials related to detainee abuse and torture. Ensure that the independent counsel receives the authority and resources he or she needs to properly and thoroughly conduct the investigation. And if the independent counsel does find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing, ensure that the Attorney General grants him or her sufficient power to prosecute officials who have violated not only the laws of the United States, but also the trust of the American people.

In your speech on the night of November 4th, you called on all Americans to make the change they wish to see. For the past several months, Human Rights USA, in collaboration with TASSC International, has been drafting a criminal complaint in support of our request for criminal investigations and, where warranted, prosecutions of U.S. officials responsible for authorizing or directing detainee abuse and torture. We are not alone in this request for accountability.[2]

We understand that you cannot do it alone. But understand that the decision to initiate investigations, and the decision to hold accountable those individuals who have done so much damage to our nation and to the individuals who were abused, tortured, and killed, must come from you.

President-elect Obama, you were correct in saying that there is no challenge too great that America cannot overcome. We see the promise that the future holds for this country, and, like you, we want to be the generation that makes future generations proud of what we did.



World Organization for Human Rights USA
Theresa Harris, Executive Director
Washington, DC

Torture Abolition Support and Survivors’ Coalition International (TASSC)
Demissie Abebe Gebremedhin, Executive Director
Washington, DC

Backbone Campaign
Bill Moyer, Executive Director
Vashon, WA

Gael Murphy, Cofounder

National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI)
Cathy Albisa, Executive Director
New York, NY

Society of American Law Teachers (SALT)
Hazel Weiser, Executive Director
Central Islip, NY

U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW)
Michael Eisenscher, National Coordinator
Washington, DC

Voces de la Frontera: Workers' Center
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Executive Director
Milwaukee, WI


Sandra Babcock
Associate Clinical Professor
Center for International Human Rights
Northwestern Law School

John Bonifaz
Constitutional Attorney

Deborah Buffton
La Crosse, Wisconsin

Catherine M. Grosso
Assistant Professor of Law
Michigan State University College of Law

Rogelio A. Lasso
The John Marshall Law School

Nathan J. Miller
Human Rights Program Officer
International Senior Lawyers Project

Jordan J. Paust
Mike and Teresa Baker Law Center Professor
University of Houston Law Center

Michael Ratner
Center for Constitutional Rights

Cindy Sheehan
Gold Star Mother and Human Rights' Activist

David Swanson
After Downing Street

Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

*The individual signatories to this letter have signed on in their individual capacity. Institutional affiliations are listed for information and identification
purposes only.

[1] Lara Jakes Jordan, Associated Press Writer, Obama advisers: No charges likely vs. interrogators, Associated Press, Nov. 18, 2008, available at http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/O/OBAMA_INTERROGATORS?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2008-11-18-00-21-27.
[2] American Civil Liberties Union, Actions for Restoring America, Oct. 20, 2008, at 2, available at; Physicians for Human Rights, Broken Laws, Broken Lives, June 2008, at 10, available at http://brokenlives.info/?page_id=69; Amnesty International, Counter Terror With Justice: A Checklist for the Next U.S. President, Nov. 5, 2008, at 2, available at http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR51/117/2008/en/f5aa6a76-a5db-11dd-98b9-d503e38a5523/amr511172008en.pdf; University of California, Berkeley, Human Rights Center and International Human Rights Law Clinic, Guantanamo and Its Aftermath: U.S. Detention and Interrogation Practices and Their Impact on Former Detainees, November 2008, p. 80, available at http://hrc.berkeley.edu/pdfs/Gtmo-Aftermath.pdf; Seymour M. Hersh, The New Yorker, The General’s Report, June 25, 2007, available at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/06/25/070625fa_fact_hersh?printable=trueAmerican (statement by Ret. General Antonio Tabuba, who headed an investigation into detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib, whose findings were reported in the Taguba Report); Human Rights First, How to End Torture and Cruel Treatment: Blueprint for the Next Administration, Oct. 2008, at 2, available at http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/pdf/etn-end-torture-blueprint.pdf.