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In plea to Obama, Nobel laureates urge torture reckoning

Open letter from 12 Peace Prize winners says US must ‘come to terms’ with its use of torture

Twelve Nobel Peace Prize winners published an open letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to “come to terms” with the U.S. government’s use of torture by coming clean about its past and present detainee policies. The letter comes amid a fight over the disclosure of a long-stalled Senate torture report and ahead of a United Nations session to clarify U.S. obligations under international conventions banning torture.

The letter, released on Sunday, says the United State stands at a “crossroads” on the issue of torture and that it is unclear if the country will “turn a blind eye to the effects of its actions on its own people and on the rest of the world, or if it will take the necessary steps to recover the standards on which the country was founded.”

Laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Muhammad Yunus, Mohammad Elbaradei and F.W. De Klerk were among those who signed the letter.

The signatories called on Obama to help the U.S. reckon with “with a grim chapter in its history” by ensuring that polices account for the past “flagrant use of torture and other violations of international law in the name of combating terrorism.”

The letter also urges Obama to throw his weight behind the release of a Senate committee report that details the extent of U.S. torture policy during the Bush administration. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee that authored the report, has said the 6,300 page report offers a picture of U.S. detainee treatment “far different and far more harsh” than what has been made public.

Even though the White House favors the report’s release, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) remains locked in a battle with the Senate committee over the scope of redactions — with the agency wanting more details censored in the public version. The CIA previously apologized for spying on members of the Senate involved in researching the report.

The laureates hope the Obama administration might begin the process of ‘realigning the nation to the ideals and beliefs of their founders – the ideals that made the United States a standard to be emulated.’

In addition to urging the release of the Senate report, the letter calls for a full accounting to the American public on the scope and authorization of torture by Americans, including verifying the closure of “black sites” — locations abroad where the U.S. interrogated and allegedly tortured detainees; a timeline for closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, where 154 detainees remain in “indefinite detention without due process;" and committing to uphold international laws against torture, including the Geneva Convention and the U.N. Convention against Torture.

Next month, the Obama administration will decide how it defines its treaty obligations under the Convention Against Torture when the body that monitors compliance to the treaty meets in Geneva. The U.S. ratified the convention in 1994, but the Bush administration opted for a narrow reading of the accord, saying the convention's prohibition on torture was not absolute and only applied domestically. Areas where the U.S. operates abroad, including foreign detention centers, would not fall under the convention, according to this interpretation.

According to a report by The New York Times, there is currently an internal debate within the Obama administration whether to maintain or revise the Bush administration’s understanding of the treaty. Some current military and intelligence lawyers say reversing course from the Bush interpretation could set an unwanted precedent on how international law impacts U.S. domestic law. Others, including many senior officials in the State Department, are urging the president to fully break with the Bush administration. 

Through Executive Order 13491, which Obama signed in 2009, the administration has outlawed interrogation practices that include torture. However, Obama has largely tried to, in his own words, “look forward as opposed to looking backwards” on prosecuting torture cases.

His approach has led critics to accuse the administration of failing to document torture or hold those responsible to account.

“The secrecy around the torture program means that torture is never behind us,” Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, previously told Al Jazeera. “The reason for the public to know what happened at the CIA — and in the rest of the government — that resulted in torture and abuse is to help make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The debate over the Senate torture report and the internal row of the legal interpretation of international treaties compelled the laureates to publish their letter on Sunday.

The laureates said they hoped the Obama administration would begin the process of “realigning the nation to the ideals and beliefs of their founders — the ideals that made the United States a standard to be emulated.”

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