Last week, I had the chance to ask Pablo de Greiff, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence, about accountability — specifically, holding American officials responsible — in the context of the CIA’s torture and interrogation program. De Greiff has long dealt with governments on issues of accountability while grappling with political realities on the ground, both in his capacity as UN Special Rapporteur and as Director of Research at the International Center for Transitional Justice based in New York.
In November 2014, a group of UN human rights experts including Mr. de Greiff cosigned a letter to President Obama calling for the greatest level of transparency with respect to the release of the Senate torture report. One paragraph in the letter concerns not transparency but accountability and reparations:
“Noting President Obama’s wish to look forward and not backward on the torture issue, the experts stress that every party to the UN Convention Against Torture has an obligation to thoroughly and promptly investigate credible reports of torture, ensure accountability, and provide adequate remedies to victims. The independent experts similarly call for the recognition of and redress of other violations that took place other violations that took place under the same CIA programs including secrecy and arbitrary detention, and forced disappearances among others.”
I asked Mr. de Greiff how he might address U.S. resistance to accountability and reparations on the grounds that such efforts would be politically implausible, especially if they involved reparations for individuals currently facing military commissions, and that such efforts could even create a backlash against the international human rights system from within the United States. His answer is in the video and transcript below:
Mr. de Greiff: The US administration can claim that, for example, establishing investigations and the efforts to establish prosecutions is politically unpalatable. But of course, that’s an entirely different sort of thing than declaring that American institutions would be at risk for the effort to satisfy obligations that the United States has voluntarily undertaken.
Of course, there are very few contexts in which it is politically attractive to initiate investigations against people who retain a certain degree of power. But countries that have had something at stake have managed to do that. And they include most of the countries in the trajectory that I just described.
So I find it absolutely surprising — in many ways appalling — and I cannot tell you how detrimental to my work it is that the United States assumes the position that because this is politically unattractive, it will not do it. Because of course, whenever I go to countries in which there is really something at risk at play, they say that [torture] is what the United States not only does, [investigation and prosecution] is what it says it will not do.
So, sorry for the long response, but I think that the point here is not that the judgment is one that the human rights activists, at least in my understanding of it, should press for end states at just any price. The point is that with respect to this issue the actual price is actually quite low, comparatively speaking.