Perhaps the two most important and most universally accepted tenets of the international human rights movement are the absolute prohibition on certain acts -- including torture, cruel punishment and disappearances -- no matter how urgent the danger is perceived to be, and the obligation of every state to hold all those who commit such acts accountable for their misdeeds.
For most of the modern history of the human rights movement the United States was the most outspoken champion of these propositions. The US government protested acts of torture and disappearance and pressed new governments to institute mechanisms of accountability for acts of prior governments.
The United States still does. However, the persuasiveness of the admonitions have been sharply reduced because we have failed to live up to these standards ourselves.
The record after 9/11 leaves no doubt that as a matter of policy the United States seized people and held them without notice to anyone and inflicted on them treatment that by almost universally accepted standards constituted torture and cruel punishment. While the Obama Administration has stopped these practices it has not codified these prohibitions in law and has steadfastly refused to hold those who approved the policies to account for their decisions.
On his first day in office President Obama sounded a clarion call by ordering the closing of CIA secret prisons and the prohibition of any interrogation techniques not sanctioned by the Army Field Manual. However, the President did not call for the passage of legislation which would permanently and unequivocally prohibit these practices. With the stroke of a pen a future President (or even this one) could restore secret detention and permit interrogation techniques which clearly constitute cruel treatment if not torture. Having crossed the line, we have an obligation to debate the matter in the public and in the Congress and then to exact clear legislation.
President Obama has at least met his obligation not to permit disappearances or torture or cruel punishment under his watch; he has utterly failed to meet his commitment to accountability.
From his first day in office the President has told us that he wished to look ahead and not debate the past. As President Obama has told the people of Kenya and his administration has told the people of Sri Lanka and Cambodia, among many others, it is not enough to look ahead. The future cannot be assured unless we confront the past. There is an unequivocal need as well as an international obligation to confront the past. When violations occur, the public is entitled to a full accounting of what was done in its name, why and what the consequences were. Those who were responsible for the acts must be held accountable and those who were victims must receive appropriate compensation.
That is why human rights organizations including OSI have called upon the President to establish a Commission of distinguished Americans to examine the treatment and rendition polices and practices of the US government and to recommend the steps necessary to meet our international obligations and to insure that the practices are not repeated.
Because the very soul of the nation is at stake as well as our ability to resume leadership of the international human rights movement, all who care about the nation and its future must continue to press this demand until it is met.