Cease US-sponsored torture

Posted Jan. 10, 2010, at 7:11 p.m.
This artwork by Mark Weber relates to President Obama's decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
This artwork by Mark Weber relates to President Obama's decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

Eight years ago the U.S. government took the first prisoners from Afghanistan to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

On Jan. 22, 2009, President Barack Obama stated that Guantanamo would close its doors by Jan. 22, 2010. Because of complex legal and ethical questions relating to the future status of some Guantanamo detainees, however, the president has since announced that the detention center at Guantanamo will not be closed by this deadline. Guantanamo is known around the world not only for its seemingly endless detentions without trial but also as a place where the United States lost its way and engaged in torture.

Since 2006, the Maine Council of Churches has worked with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, or NRCAT, and religious institutions across the nation to end U.S.-sponsored torture forever.

We strongly believe that torture is immoral. It violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions hold dear. The use of torture threatens the spiritual well-being of our nation. The torture that occurred at Guantanamo stains the image of the U.S. and diminishes our influence around the world. Closing the detention center is essential to restoring the U.S. as a respected member of the global community.

But other steps are needed. The U.S. government should put in place safeguards to make sure that torture never happens again. To know what laws or other changes are needed, Americans need to better understand U.S. torture policies and practices since 9-11. We need to know who was tortured, why they were tortured, who or-dered the torture, what the effects of the torture were and who the torturers were.

NRCAT, formed in 2006 and composed of representatives from more than 260 religious organizations including the Maine Council of Churches, has called for the creation of an independent, nonpartisan Commission of Inquiry to investigate and make findings and recommendations to the Congress and the president about what further safeguards are needed.

Some members of the House of Representatives have discussed creating a select committee to perform a similar function. What’s important is that we figure out how torture came to be part of our national policy and then implement safeguards to ensure that it never happens again.

By his executive order on Jan. 22, 2009, the president mandated that all government agencies follow guidelines laid out in the Army Field Manual while conducting interrogations. With the exception of Appendix M (which allows for the possible use of sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation, and sensory deprivation), the Army Field Manual creates one single, public, humane standard for all U.S. interrogations. In the future, Appendix M ought to be removed from the Field Manual. Additionally, new legal prohibitions ought to be put into place to prevent rendition to torture.

Executive orders are not law. President Obama’s executive order is not the final word on torture. A future president could revoke it. In order to permanently end torture, Congress should pass legislation that makes elements of the executive order permanent.

The necessary protections include a “Golden Rule” standard that would require the president (or another high-level administration official) to affirm that each interrogation technique authorized for use by American interrogators is based on the idea that we will not do unto others what we would not want done unto our own sol-diers.

In addition, Congress should require by law that the International Committee of the Red Cross be granted access to all U.S.-held detainees.

So as the detention center reaches its eighth year today, we ask America’s religious community to work to end U.S-sponsored torture by educating those within our churches, mosques, temples and synagogues. The Maine Council of Churches has materials produced by NRCAT to help communities, including religious groups, learn about this important moral issue.

Eight years of a horrendous symbol of torture is eight years too many. America’s religious communities should take the lead to ensure that the detention center at Guantanamo closes as promised in 2010 and that future generations of Americans grow up in a country that does not torture.

The Rev. Jill Job Saxby is the executive director of the Maine Council of Churches.

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