Citizens to the UN: Investigate Our “Torture Chambers in the Sky”

On behalf of the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture (NCCIT), a citizen-initiated truth panel, we just submitted a 35-page communication to 10 U.N. Special Rapporteurs and Working Group Chairs. Our submission calls their attention to unaddressed human rights violations – abduction and enforced disappearance in particular — committed by North Carolina, its political subdivisions, and a private company called Aero Contractors in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition and torture program.

Our communication reached U.N. experts on the eve of June 26, the U.N’.s International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, proclaimed in 1997 when the Convention Against Torture went into effect. The U.N. calls June 26 an opportunity for member states, civil society and individuals to “unite in support of the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who have been victims of torture and those who are still tortured today.”

Our submission to the U.N. seeks to do just that. We call upon U.N. human rights experts to use all means authorized by their mandates to investigate and hold accountable government and non-state actors for violations committed using North Carolina’s public airports essentially as staging areas for torture.

We also call on these U.N. experts to endorse North Carolina’s obligation to provide redress and repair to the victims. A team at the University of North Carolina School of Law has just published a detailed report on reparations owed by the state of North Carolina for its role in the renditions to torture of 49 survivors and victims of the U.S. torture program.

“Reparations are key mechanisms, not only for healing at an individual or communal level, but also for the maintenance of democratic societies,” the reparations report stated. “Eventually, the sun sets on democratic governments that operate with impunity to carry out human rights abuses.”

The violations addressed in the U.N. submission are presented in detail in NCCIT’s groundbreaking report, Torture Flights, North Carolina’s Role in the CIA’s Rendition and Torture Program. North Carolina was the home of “torture taxis” or “torture chambers in the sky,” as Dr. Katherine Porterfield of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture has described them. Operating from a county airport and a state-operated global transportation park, Aero Contractors furnished the aviation for over 80 percent of the identified CIA renditions during the first phase of the program.

As we remind U.N. experts, “this CIA program with global reach literally ‘got off the ground’ locally at the airports where Aero planes were located,” and relied on North Carolina’s public infrastructure, military installations and private companies to carry out rendition flights. NCCIT’s report outlines the experiences of 49 detainees who were seized and transported on Aero-operated planes and who suffered torture by the brutalizing process of rendition.

Porterfield recounted how renditions were not simply transportation to torture – they were torture. Renditions involved “physical loss of control such as sensory deprivation and destabilization (hooding, eyes and ears, music), physical pain such as comes with stress positioning involving shackling in uncomfortable positions for extended periods; and… bodily assaults such as rectal insertion of unknown objects for seemingly non-medical reasons.” As she put it, “the experience on the flights was, in some situations, as terrifying, degrading, and painful as torture that took place in other locations.”

As readers of Just Security know, the United States has relied upon claims of national security to deny victims of extraordinary rendition and torture judicial redress in domestic courts. Similarly, state elected officials have stonewalled and passed the buck on their legal obligations to remedy torture through investigation and legislation. NCCIT is the first non-governmental entity to examine the specific role of a state and its political subdivisions, as well as a private actor whose business functions related to torture have been facilitated by the state.

In the face of official indifference and obfuscation, the NCCIT, without the tools available to an official investigative or prosecutorial agency, sought persistently to uncover and publicize the truth about renditions to torture. Motivated by citizens who insist on the right to truth along with the right to reparations, the NCCIT relied upon victim voices, investigative journalists, legal analyses, and a desire to advance justice for those whose lives have been most affected by torture.

While NCCIT lacked subpoena power or the ability to review classified information, its careful research adds significant information to the historical record and the quest for full transparency of this dark chapter in U.S. history. Where its report particularly plows new ground is in focusing on the rendition aspect of the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation program.

As the submission emphasizes,

“Special Rapporteurs (SR) have the authority and duty, through their influential roles, to bring attention to this subject matter by issuing statements, calling upon the United States, North Carolina and its political subdivisions, and Aero Contractors to investigate these matters, placing these atrocities in public memory, and recording them for history….”

The SRs, Independent Experts and Working Groups have a critical role to play in ensuring that the United States lives up to its international obligations to provide judicial redress, reparations, rehabilitation and public apology to the victims of the post 9-11 use of rendition and torture.

In its own words, the United Nations “has condemned torture from the outset as one of the vilest acts perpetrated by human beings on their fellow human beings.” UN resolution 52/149 dedicated June 26 to achieving “the total eradication of torture and the effective functioning of the Convention against Torture.” To that end, our submission gives a new opening to U.N. human rights experts to help ensure that the victims of extraordinary rendition and torture obtain a measure of relief.

Image: A Casa 235 turboprop plane with registration number N168D taxis along a runway in Prague, Czech Republic. According to airport flight records the plane was registered to the firm Aero Contractors, based in North Carolina, and was scheduled to fly from Prague to Kabul, Afghanistan. In May, 2005 the New York Times reported that Aero Contractors was involved in transporting terrorism suspects to third countries. Photo by Pavel Horejsi/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Deborah M. Weissman

Reef Ivey II Distinguished Professor of Law at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, previously director of UNC Clinical Law Programs, Legal Advisor and Advisory Board Member to the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture

Juan E. Méndez

Professor of Human Rights Law in Residence at the American University –Washington College of Law, former Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists, Geneva, Switzerland, member of the Selection Committee to appoint magistrates of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and members of the Truth Commission set up as part of the Colombian Peace Accords