At a U.N. hearing Monday, the U.S. government admitted it made mistakes in the treatment of prisoners in the war against terror, but said it has taken measures to prevent abuse. A team of 25 senior officials defended Washington's treatment of detainees before the U.N. Committee Against Torture in Geneva.
In this second appearance before the U.N. Committee Against Torture, the senior officials answered a number of questions about Washington's alleged use of torture, about U.S. detainee operations in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq and about the treatment of terror suspects.
The head of the U.S. delegation and legal adviser of the Department of State, John Bellinger, told the panel's 10 independent experts that all U.S. officials and government agencies are prohibited from engaging in torture at all times and in all places. He said this is the case even in situations where the law of armed conflict applies.
In an effort to silence critics of U.S. interrogation methods, Bellinger said the United States believes everyone is entitled to humane treatment. He said freedom from torture is an inalienable right.
"Most of the regrettable incidents or allegations of mistreatment of detained enemy combatants occurred several years ago," said John Bellinger. "I say this not to minimize their significance in any way, but to emphasize that without question our record has improved. We now have more rigorous laws, more rigorous procedures, more rigorous training and more rigorous monitoring mechanisms."
The U.N. Convention Against Torture, which was adopted in 1984, has been ratified by 141 states. Each of these States has to submit a periodic report to the U.N. Committee, which examines the country's compliance with the convention.
This marks the first time the United States has been called on to account for its record on terror since the fight against terrorism began in 2001.
The experts asked the U.S. delegation to explain its alleged use of "water boarding," a form of mock drowning, on detainees. They asked about the abuses that occurred in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Stimson responded that "water boarding" is specifically prohibited in the revised version of the Army field manual. He said the U.S. government is carefully monitoring its detention operations to prevent any recurrence of the Abu Ghraib abuses.
"The Department of Defense takes seriously its obligations to conduct safe, secure and humane detention operations," said Charles Stimson. "We were shocked, as were you, about the events at Abu Ghraib. It should not have happened. Any wrongdoers need to be punished, procedures evaluated and problems corrected. We feel terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees."
Human rights groups attending the hearing said they were disappointed by many of the responses. They indicated they still had serious concerns about the practice of rendition, whereby the United States sends terror suspects to third countries, some of which have been known to practice torture. They said they would like more answers about reported secret places of detention.
The Committee will issue its report and recommendations May 19.