Torture Hearing Promises Hard Questions

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

U.S. officials can expect a grilling Friday in Geneva, Switzerland. The U.N. Committee Against Torture will target the Bush administration's interpretation of a torture ban and interrogation methods at prisons such as Iraq's Abu Ghraib.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm John Ydstie. In Geneva today, the United States is defending its treatment of foreign terror suspects before the U.N.'s watchdog agency on torture.

The Bush Administration's case is being presented by the State Department's legal advisor John Bellinger, who told the U.N. Committee Against Torture that the U.S. is absolutely committed to upholding its international obligations.

NPR's Rob Gifford is in Geneva covering the meeting. Rob, exactly what sort of case is the U.S. presenting today?

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

Well, the U.S. officials here, led by John Bellinger, will include officials from the Department of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security. Interestingly, no one from the intelligence service is here. But they've been presenting a vigorous defense of U.S. government practices.

They have admitted that there have been cases of torture and cruel and inhumane treatment. They have not denied that. But they have said that those have been a few instances that have been dealt with. And it's not at all a systemic problem.

The crucial issue that has come up this morning in the debate, though, is that the U.S. government of course says that the U.N. convention on torture does not apply outside of the U.S. So it only applies on U.S. soil and cannot be applicable to Guantanamo Bay, to bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And, of course, this has been very much the focus of the questioning from the U.N. committee.

YDSTIE: So if the U.S. is saying this is not a problem, why did it agree to appear before this committee?

GIFFORD: Well, because it has to as a signatory to the U.N. convention against torture and degrading and inhumane treatment. There are 141 signatories to this convention. Every single one of them must come up. It comes in rotation, usually every three or four years.

So it just happens that because of the war on terror there has been a lot of focus on this issue. And so it has received a lot more spotlight. But even if the war on terror wasn't going on, the U.S. government would be here presenting its case about whatever domestic cases of torture were in the news.

YDSTIE: Uh-huh. But it has taken on sort of an extraordinary, it's an extraordinary event because of 9/11.

GIFFORD: That's exactly right. And of course that has been the focus of the discussion this morning. There have been, you know, discussions about police brutality in certain U.S. cities, totally unrelated to the war on terror. But everyone wants to know about how the U.S. is treating its detainees, especially in its bases off U.S. soil.

YDSTIE: Is the outcome of this process likely to have any binding effect? Does the committee have any enforcement powers?

GIFFORD: It doesn't have strict enforcement powers because, of course, all the sovereign governments who sign up to U.N. conventions, they can interpret how they enforce those within their own sovereign country.

I think the U.N., the NGO's I've been speaking to here, of whom there are many, say the most important thing is just getting an international airing of this issue and getting it into the international spotlight.

NPR's Rob Gifford in Geneva, where the Bush administration is defending its treatment of foreign terror suspects.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from