Public Comment

America’s Violations of International Law

By Ann Fagan Ginger
Wednesday April 08, 2009 - 07:05:00 PM

As a human rights lawyer and former professor, I think it is necessary to add three facts to the story about the Spanish judge considering indicting six Bush administration officials for violating international law. 

First: the Convention Against Torture is not only against torture. The full title of the treaty is the International Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Water boarding is clearly degrading treatment, and cruel, even if Yoo and Bybee can argue that it is not torture. 

The United Nations General Assembly that adopted the Convention Against Torture included lawyers and political leaders. They knew it was important to define illegal acts to cover the range of procedures followed by officials conducting interrogations all over the world. 

In the United States, we don’t just say the First Amendment protects free speech. We include the other words in the Amendment—freedom of association and freedom of assembly. Police officers can not argue that they were not violating freedom of speech when they arrested a peaceful non-speaker at a rally. 

Second: as a signatory to the Convention Against Torture, the United States is required, and made a commitment, to make periodic reports to the U.N. Committee Against Torture every four years, to attend the meetings when the Committee discusses the U.S. report. They agreed to respond to the Concluding Observations of the Committee listing actions the government should take before the next report. And the U.S. agreed to publicize the text of the treaty and the Committee actions. 

Under Bush-Cheney, as under Clinton, the United States filed its reports very late, and largely ignored the Concluding Observations of the Committee. 

There is a penalty for such actions, or refusals to act, by the United States government. Resentment against U.S. policies grows abroad, where there is much more coverage of actions of the Committee Against Torture. And today interrogating officers in the United States are not being trained to limit their actions to those not prohibited under the treaty and its interpretations by the Committee. 

Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, working for peace law and human rights in Berkeley since 1965, learned very directly the importance of working with U.N. committees under treaties ratified by the United States. When we sent Judge Claudia Morcom (ret.) of Detroit to Geneva in 2005, she raised questions about discriminatory treatment of Katrina victims with the U.N. Human Rights Committee that administers the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, another treaty we have ratified. The U.S. should have mentioned this problem in its report. After being questioned by Committee members, U.S. government officials later came back with statements that more money was being sent and there would be an investigation of charges of discrimination in rescue operations. 

MCLI convinced the City of Berkeley to make the reports required under the Torture Convention and two other human rights treaties the U.S. has ratified. This has heightened awareness of these rights at City Hall. 

Third: every person has a right to human dignity under the U.N. Charter preamble. It is spelled out in each of the three human rights treaties the United States has ratified. We need to make this right as well known as the right to freedom of speech and religion, to habeas corpus, and to civil rights. MCLI’s new booklet, Undoing the Bush-Cheney Legacy: A Tool Kit for Lawyers and Activists describes the many recent U.S. laws that violate this concept. Our website for further information is 


Ann Fagan Ginger is executive director of the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute.