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Jennifer Turner

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While Manning Languishes in Military Custody, U.N. Calls for Accountability for Torture

Posted: 03/21/11 07:47 PM ET

Friday in Geneva, the U.N. Human Rights Council, comprised of 47 nations, adopted a long list of over 200 recommendations of policy changes needed to bring the U.S. into compliance with its human rights obligations. The council's recommendations came out of the first-ever comprehensive review of the United States' human rights record, called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The recommendations covered a broad range of issue areas, including calling for the U.S. to impose a moratorium on the death penalty, to close Guantánamo, to reduce prison overcrowding, and to take steps to prevent racial profiling.

The council also called on the Obama administration to investigate and punish those responsible for Bush-era torture. Thursday, the ACLU submitted a briefing paper to the Human Rights Council detailing the U.S. government's efforts to stymie meaningful accountability for torture and other abuse. Although the Obama administration has rightly disavowed torture, it has shielded former senior government officials who authorized torture and abuse from accountability, civil liability, and public scrutiny.

Until our government takes measures to ensure meaningful and comprehensive accountability for torture, we risk repeating our past mistakes. Last week, the ACLU sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates charging that the treatment of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is being held in military custody on charges of handing government files to WikiLeaks, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and serves no purpose other than to degrade, humiliate, and traumatize him. Manning is reportedly being held in solitary confinement, which includes being forced to remain in his cell for 23 hours a day, and is stripped naked at night. Until our government fully confronts the Bush administration's policies, perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that a member of our own armed services is being mistreated in U.S. military custody.

Friday, U.S. State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh promised to do better. He told the council that the UPR process has been helpful to "hold government to our values by asking hard questions and making tough recommendations." He noted that representatives of a number of countries had issued recommendations calling on the U.S. to bring our counterterrorism policy into line with human rights standards, including standards that require our government to ensure accountability and redress for past torture.

And in a written response to the council's proposed recommendations, the Obama administration agreed with the council's recommendations calling for "vigorous investigation and prosecution of any serious violations of international law."

Despite these noteworthy promises, the fact remains that to date, no senior government official responsible for the creation and implementation of the Bush administration's torture program has been charged with a crime. At the same time, the U.S. government has sought to end civil lawsuits brought by torture victims seeking redress under the U.S. Constitution and international law. As a result, torture survivors have been denied recognition as victims of illegal U.S. government policies and practices, compensation for their injuries, and even the opportunity to present their cases. To make matters worse, the U.S. government continues to withhold from the public key documents relating to the CIA's rendition, detention, and interrogation program.

The Obama administration must back up its promises to the Human Rights Council with concrete steps to investigate all senior civilian and military government officials who authorized and facilitated torture, to criminally prosecute those who violated the law, and to make public documents that detail the Bush administration's torture program.