U.N. Torture Panel Grills U.S. Officials

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How is torture defined? Bush administration officials were closely questioned this week on their policies in Afghanistan, Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay by members of the U.N.'s Committee Against Torture.


The Bush administration defended its treatment of foreign detainees at the United Nations Committee Against Torture this week. NPR's Rob Gifford joins us from Geneva, where he's been covering those hearings. Rob, thanks very much for being with us.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

Good to be here, Scott.

SIMON: And Rob, was a lot of the discussion about semantics?

GIFFORD: It was. Semantics are very important at the moment, the whole sort of global situation, of course. So what we have in the Middle East, one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. The whole issue of the war on terror itself. Here in Europe, no one sees it as a war. They see it as a sort of police and intelligence agency action. The issue of semantics that was focused on in the hearings this week in Geneva was, what is torture? The U.N. Convention Against Torture talks about torture as an act by which pain or suffering is intentionally inflicted on a person. Now, the U.S. has, the human rights group say, added the word extreme and so they've raised the bar of what can be considered as torture. And of course that makes a big difference to where you end up and what conclusions you come to.

SIMON: Tell us about the profile of the U.S. delegation here and why these proceedings are so important.

GIFFORD: Well, the U.S. sent more than 20 people from several different departments, the Department of Defense, the State Department, the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security. Interestingly, not from any intelligence agencies. So I think it's clear that what happens here matters to the U.S. There have been accusations that the Bush Administration doesn't care what the U.N. thinks, doesn't care what the rest of the world thinks. And at the hearings yesterday, the senior lawyer in the State Department, John Bellinger, the leader of the delegation, he and others went out of their way to say how much they respected the process and how much they very much wanted to answer every question that was put to them. And I think as I sat there, I really thought the phrase that came into my mind was really the moral high ground.

The U.S. very much wants to occupy the moral high ground and we heard it from members of the U.N. Committee yesterday. They were saying, we in this committee room where we're now sitting, we use U.S. State Department reports on human rights around the world to question other countries who come here, and that is why the U.S. has to be above reproach, that is why we're putting these questions, these difficult questions to you. And I think the U.S. does want to satisfy those questions, because undoubtedly whether this administration or any administration in the U.S., there is this feeling of needing to occupy the moral high ground.

SIMON: Is there a final document or conclusion to the conference?

GIFFORD: What happens now is that the U.S. delegation comes back on Monday to answer more questions. There's a report that's issued on May 19 and the government of the U.S. is supposed to act on that and may well decide to act on that, but a lot of the human rights and NGO organizations here, I think, feel that it's very much the sort of spotlight that's being shone internationally onto the U.S. government and its actions towards detainees especially that is the important thing that's coming out of this.

SIMON: NPR's Rob Gifford in Geneva. Thanks very much.

GIFFORD: Thanks very much, Scott.

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