By C. Clark Kissinger, April 26, 2006
We are here tonight because torture IS a crime against humanity. I want to applaud the HLS Students for Peace and the student chapter of the National Lawyers Guild for organizing this event on this critical topic. And I commend them for having the courage, the moral clarity, and the devotion to truth to stand up for human rights in these times.
Although it was considered a legitimate practice of government well into the 18th century, today torture is almost universally considered to be an extreme violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions prohibit the torture protected persons in armed conflicts.
And the UN Convention Against Torture bans the torture of anyone, to obtain information or a confession, to punish them, or to coerce either them or a third party.
One would think that this had settled the question -- much as the issues of slavery, female infanticide, or the burning of witches are today closed questions, no longer open to debate.
But this evening’s program will explore the shocking attack on that premise.
A direct impulse for this evening’s event was the formation of the International Commission of Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity by the Bush Administration.
The Commission was motivated by the moral precept that when the possibility of far-reaching war crimes and crimes against humanity exists, people of conscience have a solemn responsibility to inquire into the nature and scope of these acts and to determine if they do in fact rise to the level of crimes against humanity. It was also motivated by the fact that no other institution is holding this administration accountable.
As Harry Belafonte put it in opening our January hearings, “It is important when all the instruments of government collapse, we go in the final hour, to the most important line of battle: the people themselves.”
The Commission of Inquiry is not a court of law. It is sui generis in character -- a unique response to a unique situation. The need for this tribunal arises from the commission of crimes against humanity as popularly understood and conceived, that is, acts that, by their scale or nature, shock the conscience of humankind, and from the shear extremeness of the Bush regime’s program to remake established and accepted norms of governmental behavior.
Crimes against humanity are not isolated incidents, but rather involve large and systematic actions often cloaked with official authority. They have traditionally included mass murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts perpetrated against a population, whether conducted in wartime or not. Social policies such as apartheid and persecution on political, ethnic, and gender grounds have also been considered inhumane acts causing great suffering, and therefore crimes against humanity.
It was necessary for us to proceed from such a first-principles definition of crimes against humanity precisely because of the singular nature of some of this administration’s actions and the lack of relevant precedent in existent law.
We have referenced customary international law where applicable, but we did not limit ourselves to the scope of existing international law because it does not yet comprehend many acts that have catastrophic implications for humanity.
The Commission staff returned five indictments dealing with 1) wars of aggression; 2) indefinite detention, rendition, torture, and assassinations; 3) destruction of the global environment; 4) sabotage of AIDS prevention programs in the Third World; and 5) the abandonment of New Orleans in the face of a foreseeable and foreseen threat.
In preparing these indictments we learned that there is more than one way to exhibit callous disregard for human life and to put millions at risk.
Then in October 2005 and January 2006 we heard 44 witnesses over 5 days of testimony, including two of our speakers here tonight. A picture of the whole emerged that was greater than the sum of its parts: the conscious, systematic malevolence at the core of the Bush agenda, and how truly unconscionable this regime is on the scales of history.
This evening we will deal with only one indictment area, rendition and torture. Yet even here the Commission heard a broader range of testimony on such issues as the Bush administration’s creation of a whole new category of human beings designated “enemy combatants” by executive fiat and declared on that basis to be beyond the reach of either international law or the domestic courts. This is a de facto suspension of habeas corpus. Is there not a name for governments who can impound their citizens unrestrained by law?
We heard evidence on the wholesale round-up and detention of young men from Muslim and South Asian countries in the wake of 9/11, many of whom were held incommunicado for weeks, abused, and some deported on the basis of secret evidence presented ex parte in secret hearings. Is there not a name for governments who can round up whole groups of people based on their religion, ethnicity or country of origin?
We also heard evidence on the ordering of political assassinations by the Bush administration, a radical break with the previous nominal policy of the U.S. Government. This included the assassination in Yemen of Kamal Derwish, a United States citizen, killed by a missile fired from a Predator drone aircraft. Is there not a name for governments whose supreme leader can simply order the elimination of people he fears or dislikes without recourse to law?
It is not an exaggeration to state that the future of global humanity is being held hostage by a criminal cabal in the White House that remains bent on forging ahead with a cruel and dangerous agenda. These people have nuclear weapons and they’re now talking about using them on Iran. They are grievously impacting global climate. They are threatening unending wars. They’re wreaking havoc on populations vulnerable to disease.
All this places a enormous responsibility on people of conscience, especially here in the U.S. Once you know the truth about what is happening, a moral responsibility devolves to 1) stop it, and 2) make sure it never happens again. In this country it means taking on directly the regime in power.
This is a challenge to which students have traditionally risen. But let’s be honest -- the level of understanding and outrage, particularly on the college campuses, is nowhere near where it needs to be to stop this.
Nor will there be any mass student upsurge without the leadership and participation of students at our Harvards, our Columbias, and our Berkeleys. That is as unthinkable as the recent mass student resistance in France without the leadership and participation of the Sorbonne.
Our challenge now, and I put this challenge to you, is to bring to people the truth and the evidence -- in short, the substance that can give them the determination, clarity and courage to speak out and to act.
The very terms of debate must be changed, on campus and throughout society, and you have to fight to change them. How has it come to pass that we even tolerate an argument over the efficacy of torture to “keep us safe”? NO. Torture is a crime against humanity. It is always wrong, in all circumstances. It is not an policy option over which reasonable people can differ.
Yet today we live under a regime that regularly practices torture and rendition. And to add insult to injury, we have witnessed attempts by various legal arms of government to craft justifications for why these practices do not violate human rights, and to contrive ways to immunize its practitioners from future prosecution.
We have experienced disturbing attempts -- under the rubric of “9/11 has changed everything” -- to make torture once again thinkable and debatable. And we have suffered the encroachment into academia of apologists for the torture program of the Bush administration as well as proponents of various schemes to legalize torture in the name of its regulation and restraint.
This summer and into next fall, I hope that all of you will be seeking out the organizations and programs who are sounding the tocsin and raising the clarion call.
This is the duty of people who live in a rogue state. Referring to the famous 1967 Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal, Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, summed up the Bush Crimes Commission’s charge in these words:
“As [Bertrand] Russell said then, we say today, We are putting the Bush administration on trial. We investigate in order to expose. We document in order to indict. We arouse consciousness in order to create mass resistance. We want this trial to be a step in the building of mass resistance to war, to torture, to the destruction of our earth and its people.”