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When it comes to torture, America is nothing special

The United States isn’t holding leaders accountable for human rights abuses and is falling behind the rest of the world

January 7, 2015 9:15AM ET

In his Dec. 9 statement on the release of the Senate torture report summary, President Barack Obama insisted that the detainee abuses by Central Intelligence Agency officials revealed in the document were “inconsistent with our values as a nation.”

He expressed confidence that the United States could learn from the painful episode and move ahead. “One of the strengths that makes America exceptional,” he said, “is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better.”

There’s no question that the report summary’s release was an important step forward. But the reality is that when it comes to grappling with grave crimes committed at high levels of government, the U.S. is anything but exceptional. Instead, Washington’s response so far has tracked a pattern followed by other governments responsible for similar abuses.

Typically, the perpetrators first spin the facts, denying the abuses occurred while justifying their actions as heroic and necessary. Torture, killings and other government abuses often occur in times of great disorder or in the context of serious security threats. Though these threats are sometimes real, they allow perpetrators to cover up their crimes or simply portray them as the actions of patriots doing what’s necessary to defend their country.

To name just a few examples of this dynamic at work, Russian authorities vigorously deny wrongdoing by security forces battling an Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus, even though there’s plenty of evidence they regularly engage in illegal counterinsurgency methods, from torture to enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention. While the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka has justified its actions by pointing to the threat once posed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, it has repeatedly denied shelling hospitals and designated safe civilian areas during the final months of its civil war in early 2009 as well as continued allegations of rape, of those suspected of ties to the armed group.

Similarly, in the 1970s, Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile and the military junta governing Argentina tried to cover up their dirty war tactics — enforced disappearances, torture, killings of political opponents — while framing their authoritarianism and brutality as necessary to counter the threat of communism.

It was no surprise, then, that former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney would deny that what the CIA did was torture while calling the torture program “absolutely, totally justified” in light of the threat of terrorism and saying those involved in implementing it “ought to be decorated, not criticized.”

Usually, the public response to the revelations is confusion and denial. It can be hard for people to believe that their leaders would repeatedly lie to them or approve such brutal acts — certainly not without a good reason. Growing up in Lima, Peru, I, like many other Peruvians, took then-President Alberto Fujimori at his word when he argued in the early 1990s that his tough security measures were the only way to deal with the threat posed by Shining Path guerrillas.

It was only much later that I came to grasp the magnitude of the crimes he and his cronies were committing, including massacres and arbitrary detentions, under the cover of national security.

So while I’m disappointed to see many in the U.S. falling for the perpetrators’ spin on CIA torture — in a recent poll more than half the respondents said the CIA’s interrogation methods were justified — I’m not altogether surprised.

Attorney General Eric Holder has the power and obligation to order an investigation into these crimes.

Nor is the phenomenon of new leaders, such as Obama, trying to forget the past and move on anything new. After abuses are exposed, most governments would rather not keep digging around in the past, much less take actions to secure justice.

After all, for any leader, prosecuting your predecessor or others in government is a scary proposition. What if they retaliate? It’s easier and safer, they may well reason, to let bygones be bygones.

But it’s precisely when you try to bury the past that it comes back to haunt you. Colombia, for example, has a long history of letting perpetrators off the hook for horrific crimes, be they left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries or the military. But this has consigned the country to a decades-long cycle of violence, as all would-be rights abusers know they will almost certainly get away with their crimes.

The Obama administration, in refusing to take any steps to ensure accountability, seems intent on going down the same path.

But there are encouraging signs that, at least in some places, this pattern of denial and repression is breaking down. Increasingly, countries are seeking accountability for past abuses, not just through mechanisms like reports or truth commissions, such as Brazil’s recent accounting for killings and torture during its 1964 to 1985 military dictatorship, but also through criminal investigations. In Peru starting in 2001, special prosecutors investigated and ultimately secured convictions against Fujimori and Vladimiro Montesinos, his intelligence chief, as well as hundreds of other officials involved in large-scale corruption.

Chile and Argentina have seen convictions against former leaders involved in human rights abuses. In Guatemala, former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013, though his conviction was later overturned. A special court in Senegal is prosecuting (with Chad’s approval) the former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, for torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Even in Colombia, where the government is going in the wrong direction by trying to pass legislation that would undermine prosecutions of military abuses, Supreme Court investigators have at times made heroic — if lonely — efforts to investigate government officials for conspiring with right-wing paramilitary groups.

Those seeking accountability in other countries have often had to face enormous obstacles. Colombia is still riven by war, Guatemala by pervasive violence; in both countries, those who seek justice have risked their lives to do so. In Peru and elsewhere, the courts and other democratic institutions have long been weak, society remains highly polarized, and prosecutions have been controversial. And yet more and more countries are standing on principle and overcoming these obstacles.

Compared with them, the United States — so proud of its constitutional order, stable institutions and relative peace — has no excuse for failing to seek justice for serious crimes committed as part of the CIA torture program.

Attorney General Eric Holder has the power and obligation to order an investigation into these crimes. He should do so promptly. Otherwise, the U.S. may yet become exceptional — not for its strength but for its failure to confront its past. 

Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno is a co-director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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