US: An End to Torture

Twelve Nobel Peace Prize laureates write to President Barack Obama asking the US to close the dark chapter on torture once and for all. Obama responds.
The Authors

Click on image to learn more about these Nobel Peace Prize winners.

The Letter

President Barack Obama

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

The open admission by the President of the United States that the country engaged in torture is a first step in the US coming to terms with a grim chapter in its history. The subsequent release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence summary report will be an opportunity for the country and the world to see, in at least some detail, the extent to which their government and its representatives authorized, ordered and inflicted torture on their fellow human beings.

We are encouraged by Senator Dianne Feinstein’s recognition that “the creation of long-term, clandestine ‘black sites’ and the use of so-called ‘enhanced-interrogation techniques’ were terrible mistakes,” as well as the Senate Committee’s insistence that the report be truthful and not unnecessarily obscure the facts. They are important reminders that the justification of the torture of another human being is not a unanimous opinion in Washington, or among Americans as a whole.

We have reason to feel strongly about torture. Many of us among the Nobel Peace Prize laureates have seen firsthand the effects of the use of torture in our own countries. Some are torture survivors ourselves. Many have also been involved in the process of recovery, of helping to walk our countries and our regions out of the shadows of their own periods of conflict and abuse.

It is with this experience that we stand firmly with those Americans who are asking the US to bring its use of torture into the light of day, and for the United States to take the necessary steps to emerge from this dark period of its history, never to return.

The questions surrounding the use of torture are not as simple as how one should treat a suspected terrorist, or whether the highly dubious claim that torture produces “better” information than standard interrogation can justify its practice. Torture is, and always has been, justified in the minds of those who order it.

But the damage done by inflicting torture on a fellow human being cannot be so simplified. Nor is the harm done one-sided. Yes, the victims experience extreme physical and mental trauma, in some cases even losing their lives. But those inflicting the torture, as well as those ordering it, are nearly irreparably degraded by the practice.

As torture continues to haunt the waking hours of its victims long after the conflict has passed, so it will continue to haunt its perpetrators.

When a nation’s leaders condone and even order torture, that nation has lost its way. One need only look to the regimes where torture became a systematic practice – from Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany to the French in Algeria, South Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge and others – to see the ultimate fate of a regime so divorced from their own humanity.

The practices of torture, rendition and imprisonment without due process by the United States have even greater ramifications. The United States, born of the concept of the inherent equality of all before the law, has been since its inception a hallmark that would be emulated by countries and entire regions of the world. For more than two centuries, it has been the enlightened ideals of America’s founders that changed civilization on Earth for the better, and made the US a giant among nations.

The conduct of the United States in the treatment of prisoners through two World Wars, upholding the tenets of the Geneva Convention while its own soldiers suffered greatly from violations at the hands of its enemies, again set a standard of treatment of prisoners that was emulated by other countries and regions.

These are the Americans we know. And believing that most Americans still share these ideals, these are the Americans we speak to.

In recent decades, by accepting the flagrant use of torture and other violations of international law in the name of combating terrorism, American leaders have eroded the very freedoms and rights that generations of their young gave their lives to defend. They have again set an example that will be followed by others; only now, it is one that will be used to justify the use of torture by regimes around the world, including against American soldiers in foreign lands. In losing their way, they have made us all vulnerable.

From around the world, we will watch as the United States torture program brings the country to a crossroads. It remains to be seen whether the United States will turn a blind eye to the effects of its actions on its own people and on the rest of the world, or if it will take the necessary steps to recover the standards on which the country was founded, and to once again adhere to the international conventions it helped to bring into being.

It is our hope that the United States will take the latter path, and we jointly suggest that the steps include:

a. Full disclosure to the American people of the extent and use of torture and rendition by American soldiers, operatives, and contractors, as well as the authorization of torture and rendition by American officials.

b. Full verification of the closure and dismantling of ‘black sites” abroad for the use of torture and interrogation.

c. Clear planning and implementation for the closure of Guantanamo prison, putting an end to indefinite detention without due process.

d. Adoption of firm policy and oversight restating and upholding international law relating to conflict, including the Geneva Convention and the UN Convention against Torture, realigning the nation to the ideals and beliefs of their founders – the ideals that made the United States a standard to be emulated.


President José Ramos-Horta, Timor-Leste,

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, 1996

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South Africa,

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, 1984

Leymah Gbowee, Liberia,

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, 2011

Mohammad ElBaradei, Egypt,

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, 2005

Jody Williams, USA,

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, 1997

Muhammad Yunus, Bangladesh,

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, 2006

F.W. De Klerk, South Africa,

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, 1993

John Hume, Northern Ireland,

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, 1998

Oscar Arias Sanchez, Costa Rica,

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, 1987

Bishop Carlos X. Belo, Timor-Leste,

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, 1996

Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Argentina,

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, 1980

Betty Williams, Northern Ireland,

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, 1976

The Press

When issued the letter from the Nobel laureates on the US torture program, the story was on the front page of the New York Times, as well as the front page of the Huffington Post. It was covered by the Telegraph, Al Jazeera, Russian News Agency TASS, Human Rights Watch, the Daily Beast, Reddit, and others around the world.

The Response

His Excellency

Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta

Dili, Timor-Leste

Dear Dr. Ramos-Horta:

Thank you for sharing your views on the issue of torture. I deeply value the insights you and your fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates provided in your letter, some of which are derived from harrowing personal experiences. I am sending this response to the other signatories of your letter as well.

This issue is linked to our deepest values as a Nation. It is one of the reasons why, from the beginning of my Administration, I have made the human treatment of detainees a core requirement of our national security policy. It is also why you have seen my Administration recognize instances in which the United States has fallen short of those standards and our own values.

At the foundation of this policy is the bedrock rule that torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment are categorically prohibited always and everywhere, violate U.S. and international law, and offend human dignity. Torture is contrary to the founding documents of our country and to the universal values to which we hold ourselves and the international community.

One of my first acts in office was to sign an Executive Order ending the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) detention and interrogation program. As I directed in that Executive Order, consistent with the Convention Again Torture and Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Convention, any individual detailed in armed conflict by the United States shall in all circumstances be treated humanely and shall not be subject to torture, cruel treatment, or outrages upon personal dignity (including humiliating and degrading treatment). The Order also directed the closure of any detention facilities operated by the CIA and prohibited the operation of any such facilities in the future.

More recently, in our presentation to the Committee Against Torture in November, the U.S. delegation underscored that all U.S. personnel are legally prohibited under international and domestic law from engaging in torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment at all times and in all places. Torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are categorically prohibited, both in peacetime and during times of armed conflict. The delegation made clear that there are no gaps, either in the legal prohibitions against these acts by U.S. personnel, or in the U.S. commitment to the values enshrined in the Convention Against Torture. Moreover, the United States pledged to continue working with its partners in the international community toward the achievement of the Convention’s ultimate objective: a world without torture. The United States also articulated a number of changes and clarifications to our interpretation of the Convention, including that certain key provisions apply in places outside the United States that the United States Government controls as a governmental authority, and that a time of war does not suspend the operation of the Convention, which continues to apply even when a State is engaged in armed conflict.

At the same time, we do not claim to be perfect, and I have been very clear that in our response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, although our Nation did many things right, some of our actions were contrary to our values. The report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the CIA’s former detention and interrogation program reinforced my view that these harsh methods were not only inconsistent with our values as a Nation but did not serve our broader national security interests. I consistently supported the declassification of the executive summary, findings, and conclusions of the Committee report, as a I firmly believe that public scrutiny, debate, and transparency regarding this program will help ensure these methods will never again be used.

The true test of a society committed to the promotion of universal values and fundamental freedoms is not that it never makes mistakes, but that it takes responsibility for those mistakes and corrects them. U.S. national security agencies now have perhaps the most explicit and robust safeguards against torture and cruelty and requirements to ensure human treatment in the world. We are also pressing ahead with other efforts to ensure our national security policies and practices conform to our values.

One of these efforts, which you raised in your letter, is the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, which my Administration has been working tirelessly to close. The continued operation of this facility undermines America’s standing in the world and weakens our national security. Since I took office, we have transferred over 100 detainees, including 20 in 2014, and we will continue to press ahead with detainee transfers. But we continue to face restrictions imposed by the Congress that impede our ability to close the facility, and I continue to call on the Congress to remove them. Closing the facility is a national imperative, and I will make every effort I can to finish the job so that we can bring that chapter of American history to an end.

The United States can and should be a model for others on these important issues, and I thank you for holding us to the same high standard to which we hold ourselves.