Marjorie Cohn: Focus on torture

June 16, 2011
By

Majorie Cohn delivering Susman Lecture. Photo by Richard Bermack

Editor’s Note: Marjorie Cohn is a criminal defense lawyer, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and currently professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. On February 25, 2011, she presented the 10th annual ALBA-Bill Susman Lecture at Veterans Auditorium in San Francisco. The event was co-hosted by the San Francisco chapter of Veterans for Peace. Her remarks were extracted, in part, from earlier online writings and testimony before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives in 2008.

A Spanish court has initiated criminal proceedings against six former officials of the Bush administration. John Yoo, Jay Bybee, David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, William Haynes and Douglas Feith may face charges in Spain for authorizing torture at Guantánamo Bay. If arrest warrants are issued, Spain and any of the other 24 countries that are parties to European extradition conventions could arrest these six men when they travel abroad.

Does Spain have the authority to prosecute Americans for crimes that didn’t take place on Spanish soil? The answer is yes. It’s called “universal jurisdiction.” Universal jurisdiction is a well-established theory that countries, including the United States, have used for many years to investigate and prosecute foreign nationals for crimes that shock the conscience of the global community. It provides a critical legal tool to hold accountable those who commit crimes against the law of nations, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. Without universal jurisdiction, many of the most notorious criminals would go free. Countries that have used this as a basis to prosecute the most serious of crimes should be commended for their courage. They help to create the just world in which we all seek to live.

Israel used universal jurisdiction to prosecute, convict and execute Adolph Eichmann for his crimes during the Holocaust, even though they had no direct relationship with Israel. A federal court in Miami recently convicted Chuckie Taylor, son of the former Liberian president, of torture that occurred in Liberia. A U.S. court sentenced Taylor to 97 years in prison in January.

Universal jurisdiction complements, but does not supersede, national prosecutions. So if the United States were investigating the Bush officials, other countries would refrain from doing so.

When the United States ratified the Convention Against Torture, it promised to extradite or prosecute those who commit, or are complicit in, the commission of torture.

President Obama, when asked whether he favored criminal investigations of Bush officials, replied, “My view is also that nobody’s above the law and, if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen.” “But,” he added, “generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backward.” Preoccupied with the economy and two wars, Obama reportedly wants to wait before considering prosecutions that would invariably anger the GOP.

Evidence that Bush officials set a policy that led to the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo continues to emerge. According to ABC News, Gonzales met with other officials in the White House and authorized torture, including waterboarding. The Office of Professional Responsibility, which reports to the U.S. attorney general, drafted a report that excoriates Yoo and Bybee for writing the infamous torture memos. Haynes, Addington and Feith participated in decisions that led to torture. The release of additional graphic torture memos by the U.S. Department of Justice is imminent. It is the responsibility of the United States to investigate allegations of torture.…

If the United States refuses to investigate now, it will be more likely that some future administration will repeat this scenario. The use of torture should be purged from our system, much like we eradicated slavery….

The President can no more order the commission of torture than he can order the commission of genocide, or establish a system of slavery, or wage a war of aggression.

A Select Committee of Congress should launch an immediate and thorough investigation of the circumstances under which torture was authorized and rationalized. The high officials of our government and their lawyers who advised them should be investigated and prosecuted by a Special Prosecutor, independent of the Justice Department, for their crimes. John Yoo, Jay Byee, and David Addington should be subjected to particular scrutiny because of the seriousness of their roles in misusing the rule of law and legal analysis to justify torture and other crimes in flagrant violation of domestic and international law.

Share

Leave a Comment