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United States Incompliance with the United Nation's Convention Against Torture

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United States Incompliance with the United Nation's Convention against Torture:

How the U.S.' history with torture hinders the ability to fully comply with the Convention Against Torture.

Christina E. Berluche

Clark Atlanta University


This paper analyzes the United State's lack of adherence to the United Nation's Convention Against Torture (CAT). Since the signing of the CAT, literature proves how the U.S. has manipulated the obligations of the treaty to benefit the state, deeming the U.S. as false negatives of the CAT. The paper explores CAT principles, clearly defining torture and how the U.S. has fashioned loopholes to justify its domestic use of torture that has spread into an international dilemma. Hundreds of thousands of documents provide evidence of U.S.' violations of the CAT, yet the paper will explore a few prominent cases that publically hinder the image of the U.S. compliance to the CAT before and after ratification. The paper will emphasize how the U.S.' history of torture has effected past and present compliance with the CAT, especially during the Bush Administration where the U.S.' use of torture was most public since its ratification of the treaty.

Since the United State's adoption of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), speculations have arose concerning their compliance to uphold the imperative obligations of the treaty. US' adherence to the treaty publicized the country's opposition to acts of torture and has pledged its allegiance by enacting statutes to ensure the prohibition of these crude acts. However, the U.N. Committee Against Torture, along with non-governmental organizations (NGO) has monitored the United States' efforts and lack thereof to fulfill every human's unalienable right of freedom from torture. Research exposes how the U.S.' attempt to appear as genuine ratifiers are blotched by the revelation of several arenas of U.S. non-compliance to obligations and violations of CAT guidelines.

The CAT stemmed from the Torture Declaration adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on December 9, 1975. The CAT would emulate the Torture Declaration and ensure its observance through set guidelines that require the implementation of the declaration. The U.N. adopted the CAT on December 10, 1984 and 20 states quickly ratified the treaty allowing it to enter force on June 28, 1987. It was "regularly celebrated as one of the most successful international human rights treaties" (Hathaway, 2007) aiming to prevent torture across the globe. The US' ratification would abate the American past of induced torture in the Salem Witch Trials, African slavery, World Wars, up through the civil rights movement. Adherence to the treaty would clearly define the US' opposition to torture, defined in the CAT as:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

- Convention Against Torture, Article 1.1

Since the definition of torture could be open to interpretation, the CAT constituted cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment as forms of torture. These acts as include such practices as "corporal punishment, pain-causing devices, interrogation under duress, biomedical experiments on prisoners, the use of drugs on prisoners, and solitary confinement." (Kelly, 2009)


On April 18, 1988, the Reagan administration led United State's decision to become the 63rd nation to sign the CAT and was considered to be a clever move for the democratic republic. The U.S. would not ratify the treaty until October 21, 1994, when acts of torture under US officials were being recognized by international parties. Situations such as the infamous Rodney King incident shined light on years of police brutality and Chicago Police Deputy Jon Burge, accused of brutally torturing black men into confessions that would sentence them to death row (Addison, 2009). Despite the CAT being adopted in 1988, it would not immediately enact the treaty obligation. Becoming a signer of the treaty only meant that you recognized the treaty, however a state was not "legally bound to abide a treaty" (Hawkins, 2006) until they ratified the treaty. The US was not willing to comply with the CAT as an absolute treaty until certain revisions and recommendations of the treaty were made. Reagan sought to have the treaty formatted prior to ratification, creating the US' own reservations. These changes were speculated to be used as loopholes of justification to any future allegations pertaining to non-compliance of the treaty.

The United States' reservations, understandings, and declarations (RUDs) that are attached with the CAT and several other UN human right treaties, has given the US the ability to abide by the treaty partial to U.S. policy. The U.S. claims that reservations are necessary because the U.S. will not undertake any treaty obligation that is inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution (Henkin, 1995). The U.S. loves to use unconstitutionality as a method to defend arguments and in the case of CAT RUDs, it resumes to be a successful tactic. Basically, the U.S. is adhering to the CAT for pretentious reasoning so "the U.S. [can] pretend to assume international obligations but in fact is undertaking nothing." (Henkin, 1995) In Article 21, paragraph 1, the U.S. declares the constant auditing of other signatory parties to be in effect. Therefore, state parties can to report forms of non-cooperation with the treaty to the CAT committee. However the U.S declares that "only such [reports] shall be accepted and processed only if they come from a State Party which has made a similar declaration."(1994) This would limit the effect of NGO's accusations and criticisms of U.S. compliance in eyes of the CAT committee.




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