In Which Obama Forgets His Stance on Torture

Law and Order


I was clear throughout this campaign, and have been clear throughout this transition, that under my administration the United States does not torture. We will abide by the Geneva Conventions. That we will uphold our highest values and is important for us to do that not only because that’s who we are, but ultimately will make us safer.   - Barack Obama, January 9, 2009



Funny how things change, isn't it? These were the words of a president who had respect for international law. The words of a president who believed that the United States should not perpetually function under a state of exception in the name of national security. This president was going to re-establish American moral standing in the world and remind our people that we don’t need to employ illegal tactics to keep our country safe. This was the president who issued Executive Order 13491, which among other things reaffirmed Common Article 3 as a "minimum baseline" for our treatment of prisoners held by U.S. forces outside our country's borders. 


Yet, over the years we have seen a hesitancy in President Barack Obama to completely eliminate torture policies established under former President George W. Bush. We saw this as he boldly released what came to be known as the torture memos, but then maneuvered to block the possibility of any prosecutions based on those memos. This move had the effect of stating that those actions were wrong, but that surely nobody should be held accountable for this wrongdoing. Sure, “we tortured some folks,” but that doesn’t mean those were criminal acts for which any individual ought to be prosecuted. 


According to a recent New York Times article, anonymous sources within the Obama Administration acknowledge that discussions are being held as to whether the Administration ought to rethink its initial stance on the Bush Administration’s reading of the Geneva Conventions - that we have no legal obligation to refrain from torture, cruel or inhumane treatment outside U.S/ borders in our "war on terror." This reading of the Geneva Conventions and Common Article 3 would open the door for a return to "enhanced interrogation techniques" at U.S. black sites around the world.


Most important here is the reading of Common Article 3. The Council on Foreign Relations explains that Common Article 3 "requires humane treatment for all persons in enemy hands, without any adverse distinction. It specifically prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment, the taking of hostages and unfair trial." The Bush Administration, and now potentially the Obama Administration, found that terrorist suspects did not fall under the protections of the convention because they were not technically prisoners of war. This reading of the Geneva Conventions allows for a side-stepping of international law.


Ultimately, the overturning of the Bush-era torture policies wasn't about whether the methods were effective (they're not). It wasn't about whether a ticking time bomb scenario was or was not averted (this scenario is a myth and only exists in realities created by TV shows such as 24). It wasn't about whether torture was a reasonable strategy in the "war on terror" (it wasn't). It was about whether we as a country could stand behind a choice to ignore international law and step on the human rights of a person simply because we believed them to be a criminal.


In the end, it comes down to this:


There is no moral excuse for creative readings of Geneva and there is no democratic ideal upheld by finding a way to sidestep the convention in the name of “national security.” If President Obama is going to send a delegation to Geneva next month to proclaim in front of the Committee Against Torture a return to the Bush Administration's reading of Geneva, he needs to simply admit the only ideal he's holding up is that of power. In doing so, he'll forfeit any semblance of moral authority our country had left. 




Barack Obama, Ethics, Morality, Torture, US Foreign Policy