Nobel Laureates Say No to Torture: 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.