Roughly a week before Barack Obama's inauguration this week his pick for United States Attorney General, Eric Holder Jr., made headlines declaring unequivocally that water boarding, an anti-terror practice which has been used on a limited basis by the U.S., is torture.
Water boarding is an interrogation technique that is meant to simulate drowning. It has been at the centre of much controversy in the last couple of years as the war on terror has dragged on and U.S. tactics have been more closely scrutinized. The recent condemnation of the practice by the soon-to-be attorney general raises a serious issue facing the U.S.: how are they to deal with the fact that Americans have used this torture method to extract information for the war on terror.
Clearly, if it is torture, which is illegal by the eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution, then it demands that some sort of justice be sought for the at least three individuals tortured by the U.S. Keeping in line with the various ad-hoc tribunals set up around the world to put war criminals and other bad people on trial, it would seem that the necessary action to take in this case would be to instigate an investigation into who was responsible for ordering and conducting the torture of the three men and then bring them to trial. Some might argue that at the time these measures were taken, the act was not considered illegal. This argument doesn't seem to hold much water. If it did, then malicious leaders would only have to amend laws to be free to abuse people. In the past this has been done, but it has not been recognized as a legitimate defence when they are later brought to trial. Furthermore, the issue of whether water boarding is torture was treated with immense circumspection by the Bush administration. Both attorney generals who served under George Bush are noted as having evaded questioning about it in senate hearings. Obviously the government was concerned about admitting the practices they were engaged in, which indicated that there was a great deal of uncertainty about the legitimacy of such methods even during Bush's term.
In addition to making the announcement regarding water boarding, Obama and Holder Jr. have indicated that they will seek to move at least some of the detainees from Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. to stand trial. Both of these measures are positive steps, but simply adjusting to reasonable practices now does not seem to be enough. Particularly if the U.S. plans on engaging with other states in a justice-bringing role, they need to regain their moral leadership. And the only way to do this is to seek justice within its own sphere by ensuring that America, too, adheres to the rigorous standards of human rights and justice which it demands of others.
But this will likely not happen. For a long time now the U.S. has refused to sign on to the international courts for this precise reason-- they do not want to expose their soldiers and politicians to possible international criminal charges. The reason for taking such a position is easy to understand, but in such an atrocious case as this, where the most powerful country in the world has stooped to the dirtiest levels of human conduct, the appropriate action is a fabulous display of cowardice and disdain for the rest of the world. It is clearly not comfortable to expose oneself to such national introspection, but there is no other way to ensure the health of the state. Obama and his incoming administration have taken the first steps in the right direction, but it is a long path to follow.