By Deborah Weissman
It took more than a decade after the inauguration of the “War on Terror” for the United States to acknowledge egregious human rights violations through its torture and extraordinary rendition program. Notwithstanding the admission, the failure of elected officials to hold individuals complicit in these programs accountable might suggest that the United States and the world have moved on.
In fact, new developments have reset the starting point for obtaining accountability and reparations for torture. In late 2014, the United States appeared before the UN Committee Against Torture, pledged unequivocally to uphold the Convention Against Torture, and agreed that no exceptions that could be claimed. Indeed, torture is prohibited by the terms of the treaty; international law requires that accountability and reparations must be provided when the prohibition is violated. Are we not to take the words of the government, given solemnly and unequivocally, as true? These developments require us to press for the long-awaited accountability for the wrongdoings perpetrated by the torture program.
The landscape of accountability has shifted through the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee “Torture Report,” which corroborated what anti-torture advocates had claimed since the “War on Terror” began. Despite its redactions, with the declassification of the factual account of the torture program, the government can no longer stand on its claim of state secrets in an attempt to deny torture victims the right to a remedy for the harms they have suffered.
There have also been important developments on a global level as human rights institutions continue to pursue transparency and remedy. Decisions by international and foreign courts, especially in the UK and Australia—nations with which we share fundamental legal principles—have affirmed the obligations of nations to investigate torture and to hold accountable those responsible for such acts. The European Court of Human Rights has issued decisions condemning torture and extraordinary rendition and proclaiming the rights of victims to obtain remedy and reparations. These cases demonstrate that justice for victims of torture and extraordinary rendition is possible through adjudication, and negate the proposition that such adjudication endangers national security.
The issue of torture and extraordinary rendition will persist until settled through compliance with the law. That brings us to the responsibilities of North Carolina and its political subdivisions. North Carolina has served as a hub for extraordinary rendition. A report endorsed by international human rights experts revealed the ways in which North Carolina, its political subdivisions, and Aero Contractors, a corporation based in Johnston County, NC and housed at the Johnston County Airport, were directly and indirectly responsible for carrying out kidnapping and torture. International law obliges North Carolina to investigate, hold those responsible for torture accountable for their acts, and provide reparation to the victims. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Convention Against Torture—the latter two treaties signed and ratified by the United States—prohibit extraordinary rendition and torture by any state, group, or person.
Human rights treaties were written with the expectation that they would be implemented regionally and locally. They provide a set of standards to which local governments must adhere in administering their own laws and policies. States and local governments are indispensable for the implementation of human rights treaties. Where the United States has a formal obligation to comply with international law, the United States Constitution's Supremacy Clause states that “all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”
North Carolina has not been prevented from acting because of the federal government’s refusal to act. Officials have suggested that North Carolina can take no action in matters of foreign affairs. However, extraordinary rendition and torture are unlawful acts that should not be confused with foreign policy within the purview of the federal government. It is time for the state of North Carolina to comply with its human rights obligations.
Deborah Weissman is the Reef C. Ivey II Distinguished Professor of Law at University of North Carolina. There she was the Director of Clinical Programs at UNC School of Law from January 2001 through July 2010. Weissman serves as an Executive Committee member for The Consortium in Latin American Studies, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, and as a member of the Advisory Board with The Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of North Carolina. In 2013, she received the Frank Porter Graham Award from the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union for outstanding civil rights work. With her students, Weissman published a report The North Carolina Connection to Extraordinary Rendition in 2012. She is also a member of the NCCIT Advisory Board.