How to handle the legacy of torture handed down by the Bush administration will be one of the most important tasks of the Obama presidency. The president-elect has made his opposition to torture clear. He must issue immediate executive orders to ban it, together with all cruel, inhuman or degrading treatments of detainees, and demand full compliance with the Geneva Conventions and Convention Against Torture from all agencies. That, presumably, he will do. But what next?
The incoming administration has already made noises about the importance of unity and of moving forward, and expressed a reluctance to engage in criminal trials. The Senate committee on armed services report of December 2008, on the other hand, has already made a case for bringing criminal charges against Donald Rumsfeld, William Haynes, Alberto Gonzales, David Addington and others, and there is some pressure from the human rights lobby for judicial action.
President Obama might instead consider appointing an independent truth commission, with full access to all relevant material. Such a process, involving public testimony from perpetrators and victims, with immunity granted in return for full disclosure, is a powerful social tool. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, for example, led to disclosures about torture, deaths in detention and political persecution.
Truth commissions have been set up in at least 23 countries, all based on the theme of public acknowledgement, testimony and closure. Some worked better than others. Bolivia’s National Commission of Inquiry into Disappearances (1982) arguably failed, disbanding without a final report. Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappeared (1983), on the other hand, had a profoundly healing effect. No one would want to suggest that the abuses of the Bush administration were comparable with Bolivia’s or Argentina’s, but the global scale of the war on terror, and the ease with which the executive branch of the administration assumed excessive powers, justify a commission to record and understand (rather than debate or litigate) the wider effects of the politics of fear after 11 September 2001.
The Bush administration’s support for torture has not been the only human rights concern of the past eight years, however. Here are some other suggestions for the new president.
The International Criminal Court must receive full American support. In May 2002 George W Bush withdrew from the Rome Statute, which created the court. This should be re-ratified, and support should be given to the ICC prosecutor in the case against those who have ultimate responsibility for the atrocities in Darfur.
The Genocide Prevention Task Force, chaired by Madeleine Albright and William Cohen, last month issued a report with 34 recommendations for the prevention of genocide. President Obama should implement these recommendations.
America has declined to ratify several important international law treaties, including the American Convention on Human Rights, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They should all be ratified, along with the two new treaties, the Convention on Disability Rights and the Convention Against Enforced Disappearance. The UN has been undermined by the US for years: Barack Obama should begin a new era of co-operation.
Closing Guantanamo is not enough. Obama was voted in with the promise of change: uncovering the quasi-legal landscape of detention, rendition and torture is both the right and the politically expedient thing to do. Human rights principles and realpolitik rarely converge: when they do, politicians should grab the opportunity with both hands.
Sigrid Rausing is a publisher and philanthropist