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2010-12-02

U.N. Special Rapporteur Juan Méndez: Instead of Focusing on Assange, U.S. Should Address WikiLeaks’ Disclosures of Torture

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One of the leaked U.S. State Department cables released by WikiLeaks urges diplomats to gather intelligence about "plans and intentions of member states or UN Special Rapporteurs to press for resolutions or investigations into US counterterrorism strategies and treatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan or Guantanamo." We speak to Juan Méndez, the new U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. He has called on the United States to investigate and prosecute torture committed under former President George W. Bush. He also said he hopes to visit Iraq and Guantánamo Bay to probe widespread torture allegations. Méndez says, "We seem to be focusing on whether disclosing these cables ... merits some kinds of action against Julian Assange... I’m very concerned about the documents that show that literally thousands of people were first imprisoned by American forces and then transferred to the control of forces in Iraq and perhaps even in Afghanistan, where they knew that these people were going to be tortured." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We move on to more stories within WikiLeaks. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the biggest early revelations from the massive leak of U.S. embassy cables is that the State Department ordered American diplomats to spy on the leadership of the United Nations. The directives were signed by Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. On Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with Hillary Clinton to discuss the matter.

While WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has called on Hillary Clinton to resign, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed any wrongdoing on her part and denied that U.S. diplomats engage in spying.

Well, one of the instructions in the leaked State Department directive urges diplomats to gather intelligence about, quote, "plans and intentions of member states or UN Special Rapporteurs to press for resolutions or investigations into US counterterrorism strategies and treatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan or Guantanamo."

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Méndez is the new U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Last month he called on the United States to investigate and prosecute torture committed under President George W. Bush. He also said he hopes to visit Iraq and Guantánamo to probe widespread torture allegations.

Juan Méndez, welcome to Democracy Now! First, comment on the WikiLeaks cable that actually would target you. You’re one of the special rapporteurs.

JUAN MÉNDEZ: Yes, if I understand correctly, these cables are earlier than when I started my term, which is only a month ago, but still, they are kind of puzzling because there’s nothing more transparent than what special rapporteurs of the United Nations do and plan. In fact, we all want to have dialogues with governments. If they really want to know what the special rapporteurship on torture is trying to do, they could just call me. Except for obvious confidentiality of some sources, if people ask us for confidentiality to protect their safety, everything else we do is so transparent that it’s kind of surprising to see that there would be any kind of request for an operation to find out what we are trying to do.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting to think about. You’re saying they could just call you, but they’re talking about taking your iris scan, your fingerprints, getting somehow your DNA, some of your biometrics information. What could they possibly want with this?

JUAN MÉNDEZ: That’s right. I have no idea. That is actually more than puzzling. That’s troubling, because, obviously, you know, they —- that’s the kind of -—

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been invited for tea recently with any U.S. diplomat, Juan Méndez?

JUAN MÉNDEZ: No, but I’ve actually read the leaked cable, and it’s not clear to me that when they’re asking for that kind of, you know, privacy-related information, that they’re talking generally about U.N. officials. Whether they mean special rapporteurs is kind of open to question, because we are not U.N. officials. We are volunteers who do our work as experts on specific human rights themes. And so, they may be referring to other U.N. officials. But even then, it’s very troubling, because, you know, we do need to protect privacy rights, and especially with the potential for that information to be used by others with bad intentions, I think that that is troubling to me.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you, these revelations — some in the U.S. media have said this should not be a major shock, intelligence gathering is part of the diplomatic process by different officials, diplomatic officials from different countries. But is it your sense that other folks at the United Nations are shocked in any way by the level of effort that is being made by — especially by the State Department — we’re not talking now about the normal spies of the U.S. government, but by State Department officials — to gather this kind of information from fellow diplomats?

JUAN MÉNDEZ: I cannot speak for others in the U.N. Frankly, you know, I speak with a relatively small number of people who help me in my task as special rapporteur on torture. And I can’t comment on areas of the WikiLeaks that are completely outside my mandate, like spying and things like that.

What I am really worried about is that we seem to be focusing on whether disclosing these cables is legal or illegal, whether it merits some kinds of action against Mr. Assange. We’re not really discussing the merits, the substance of what some of these things reveal. And in my case, for example, I’m very concerned about the documents that show that literally thousands of people were first imprisoned by American forces and then transferred to the control of forces in Iraq and perhaps even in Afghanistan, where they knew that these people were going to be tortured. That’s a very clear violation of a standard that applies to the United States as a signatory of the Convention Against Torture, and I want to know what’s being done about getting to the bottom of that.

AMY GOODMAN: You have called on the United States to investigate and prosecute torture committed under former President George W. Bush. I want to play you the recent comments of President Bush talking about waterboarding. He was interviewed recently by NBC’s Matt Lauer.

MATT LAUER: Why is waterboarding legal, in your opinion?

GEORGE W. BUSH: Because the lawyers said it was legal, said it did not fall within the Anti-Torture Act. I’m not a lawyer. And — but you got to trust the judgment of people around you. And I do.

MATT LAUER: You say it’s legal, and the lawyers told me.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah. [...] First of all, we used this technique on three people. Captured a lot of people and used it on three. We gained valuable information to protect the country, and it was the right thing to do, as far as I’m concerned.

MATT LAUER: So, if it’s legal, President Bush, then if an American is taken into custody in a foreign country, not necessarily a uniformed American —

GEORGE W. BUSH: Look, I’m not going to debate the issue, Matt. I really —

MATT LAUER: I’m just asking. Would it be OK for a foreign country to waterboard an American citizen?

GEORGE W. BUSH: It’s — all I ask is that people read the book. And they can reach the same conclusion if they would have made the same decision I made or not.

MATT LAUER: You’d make the same decision again today?

GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah, I would.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Bush. Juan Méndez, you’re the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture. Your response?

JUAN MÉNDEZ: Well, I think it’s very disingenuous to rely on a memo that President Bush himself withdrew. And, you know, if he knew it was wrong on the law, he can’t, you know, years later rely on it to say, "Well, I was told it was legal." And besides, quite frankly, if you — just by the description of what waterboarding tries to do, which is to create a sense of asphyxiation, it’s not rocket science to know that that’s torture and that, the memos notwithstanding, that’s both illegal and immoral. And quite frankly, it violates a very clear standard that the United States is bound to.

Now, I’ve been calling for the United States to live up to its obligation under the torture convention. The torture convention says very clearly that every case of torture has to be investigated, prosecuted and punished as an international law obligation of the state. Unfortunately, despite the fact that we have leads like this, like the torture memos, like the revelations that Mr. Bush himself has made, I don’t see enough, at least — I mean, obviously I’m in conversations with the U.S. government, so I’m hoping that they will give me more chapter and verse about what it is that they are doing to live up to this obligation to investigate in good faith every single act of torture.

AMY GOODMAN: So you think President Bush should be investigated?

JUAN MÉNDEZ: Well, I’m not saying who should be prosecuted or investigated. What I’m saying is that this is a significant lead that should lead investigators to pursue it to whatever consequences it takes them. I’m not in a position to say who’s responsible for what criminal act.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Juan Méndez, President Obama has resisted calls to investigate the torture of detainees under the Bush administration. This is what he said last year on CBS’s Face the Nation.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have said consistently that I want to look forward and not backward when it comes to some of the problems that occurred under the previous administration when it came to interrogations. I don’t want witch hunts taking place.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your response on this issue of looking forward instead of back and not allowing witch hunts to take place?

JUAN MÉNDEZ: Well, this has been a debate all over the world every time we have to look at egregious conduct by state officials. People always say we want to look forward and not backward. I reject the notion that investigating and prosecuting international crimes is a way of just looking backwards and being — and engaging in a witch hunt or being vengeful. I think, on the contrary, it’s a proper way of looking forward: it’s settling the stories the way they should be settled, deciding on what was done by order of whom and against whom, and moving forward only after we know the whole truth.

In the United States, there were at least some initial encouraging moves by Congress, especially, to investigate some of the atrocious things that have happened in the war on terror. But unfortunately, in the last two years, we have seen very little in the way of those investigations. As I said, I am talking to the U.S. government, and I’m hoping to be given much more information about what is actually being done. But I want to stress that that’s not a discretionary decision by any state. Every state that signs and ratifies the Convention Against Torture is legally obliged to investigate, prosecute and punish every single act of torture.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Méndez, we only have 30 seconds, but you speak from personal experience. I mean, you come from Argentina. In Argentina, there are hundreds of trials going on now of torturers.

JUAN MÉNDEZ: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: You, yourself, were tortured for representing political prisoners — that’s right? — in the 1970s?

JUAN MÉNDEZ: That’s correct, yes. That’s right. You know, and I am following the trials in Argentina. They are, you know, very uplifting, and they are a way of looking forward. It’s a way in which the country sees itself in the mirror, reckons with its past, and makes sure that it doesn’t happen again. So, that’s a way of looking forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Méndez, I want to thank you very much for being with us, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

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