U.S. Changes Position on Torture Convention–Accepts Ban on Cruelty Applies Abroad

At a session before the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva this morning, the Obama administration made a significant shift away from the Bush-era interpretation of the Convention Against Torture. The U.S. delegation stated that the government had “carefully reviewed” the legal issues and “is prepared to clarify its views.”

The U.S. affirmed that the obligations in the Convention applying to a State Party in “any territory under its jurisdiction” — including those in Articles 2 and 16 to prevent cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment — apply outside US borders. The government stated that it accepts that these obligations:

“extend to certain areas beyond the sovereign territory of the State Party, and more specifically to ‘all places that the State Party controls as a governmental authority.'”

The administration also explicitly affirmed that these provisions apply at Guantanamo Bay and to activity on U.S. registered ships and aircraft, on the basis of U.S. governmental control.

Moreover, the obligations under the Convention “continue[] to apply even when a State is engaged in armed conflict” notwithstanding the concurrent obligations and prohibitions imposed by the law of armed conflict with respect to the conduct of hostilities and protection of war victims.

The government stated:

“Although the law of armed conflict is the controlling body of law with regard to the conduct of hostilities and the protection of war victims, a time of war does not suspend operation of the Convention Against Torture, which continues to apply even when a State is engaged in armed conflict. The obligations to prevent torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment in the Convention remain applicable in times of armed conflict and are reinforced by complementary prohibitions in the law of armed conflict.”

Stay tuned for further analysis and coverage of the US’s submissions to the Committee. A live video stream for tomorrow’s session (15.00-18.00 local time) is available here. Also check out earlier coverage of these issues at Just Security.

You can read a statement on the US change in position by Amnesty International USA here, and by the ACLU here. 

About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

Former Associate Editor at Just Security Follow her on Twitter (@RParekh88).