Welcome Juan E. Mendez (United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture), and Marjory Wentworth (Human Rights Activist, UN High Commission for Refugees, Poet Laureate of South Carolina), Hosted by Jason Leopold (TruthOut.org)
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
What could possibly make a human being torture another human being?
That’s a question that, as a young boy, I recall asking my grandparents—Holocaust survivors—after they described to me in vivid detail the torture they and other members of my extended family were subjected to by the Nazis during World War II.
It’s a question I returned to earlier this year when I had the opportunity to interview a veteran of the US Army Reserves who was torn up about the torture he says he witnessed and participated in against some “war on terror” detainees while serving as a guard at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility. [That guard, Pfc. Albert Melise, has since been barred from reenlistment for speaking to me.]
I found myself asking the same question again while reading Juan Mendez’s powerful new book Taking A Stand in which the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Torture and visiting professor of law at Washington College of Law recounts his life’s work as one of the world’s most prominent human rights activists.
Mendez’s book, co-written by Pushcart Prize nominated poet Marjory Wentworth, is a painful read, as should be expected when one documents crimes against humanity in countries such as Darfur, Argentina and Liberia. But what was especially difficult about the book was reading Mendez’s detailed description of the brutal torture he was subjected to following his arrest during Argentina’s Dirty War more than thirty years ago.
“In at least four different places in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, I was interrogated under beatings and the application of the electric prod called the picana on my genitals, other sensitive areas and ultimately all over my body,” Mendez wrote. “The picana was invented specifically for enhanced interrogation. The tool makes a whizzing sound before it is applied, and the operator regulates the intensity of the discharge as well as the length and frequency of each application. I was tied up, spread-eagled on a table (which they called the parilla or grill), nude but blindfolded and facing up the first time and down the next session, so as to ensure that not an inch of my body was spared. The pain I suffered with each discharge was so intense that my whole body tensed up; my muscles ached for days afterward. When applied to the mouth, face or head, the shock can cause the victim to black out. Needless to say, I screamed at the top of my lungs; the interrogators assured me that no one could hear me. I received five sessions of the electric prod, each lasting about a half hour or more, during what seemed to be twenty-four hours…More than once I begged my torturers to kill me. They said they would, but later.”
Mendez was working as a lawyer representing dissidents when Argentine Junta security forces jailed him. That he survived his 18-month incarceration is nothing short of a miracle considering that other politically minded lawyers and political activists he had worked closely with were systematically executed or disappeared.
But justice is poetic. Last month, a dozen former Argentinian military and police officials, including a Navy officer who earned the nickname “Angel of Death,” were sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping, murder and torture of leftist activists during the height of the country’s military dictatorship.
That decision by a court in Argentina underscores one of the key points Mendez makes throughout Taking A Stand: the “remarkable growth” of the human rights movement over the past three decades would not have been possible had local activists not demanded on accountability.
“Today, there is the possibility of bringing to trial individual perpetrators of the most serious crimes, and this change has transformed the goals and practices of the men and women fighting to end atrocities in a very positive way,” Mendez wrote in a chapter titled “Justice.” “The potential for international criminal prosecution also has engaged international decision-making groups and public opinion, thereby magnifying justice for victims, the cessation of violations and the prevention of future wrongs.”
Mendez has devoted an entire chapter of his book to accountability and states simply that “when it comes to mass atrocities, the appropriate response has to be the investigation, prosecution and punishment of those responsible.”
The same standard, Mendez said, also has to be applied to regimes that resort to torture. But human rights activists in the US and abroad have been unsuccessful, despite their best efforts, to hold Bush administration officials accountable for implementing a policy of torture against “war on terror” detainees nor have they had any success in urging President Barack Obama to exercise his responsibility as dictated by the Convention Against Torture to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of the crimes of torture.
As former Amnesty International Secretary General Ian Martin notes in his introduction to Taking A Stand, the fact that the United States “has aspired to be a human rights leader” has been “undermined by its inability to rise above political alliances, and increasingly by its own direct violations of human rights.”
Yet, Mendez, Martin added, “is uncompromising in his insistence on holding his second country to universal standards.” And Mendez makes it abundantly clear that if the Obama administration continues to fail in its legal and moral, “it invites other nations to follow the U.S. example of impunity for torture and provides rogue regimes with a ready-made excuse for rejecting international community concerns about their own abuses.”
In his chapter on accountability, Mendez highlights the Obama administration’s hypocrisy in demanding transparency and accountability “from other governments in dealing with the past …,” yet, time and again, Obama and his appointees refuse to heed calls from human rights organizations to “confront its own mistakes and wrongdoings” in order to show “that they are, indeed, in the past.”
But, as documented in a report published by the Associated Press earlier this year about the torture of detainees at secret prisons operated by the US military in Afghanistan, these “mistakes” and “wrongdoings” are not “in the past” and perhaps that may explain, in part, the reasons why the public has never received the “reckoning” Attorney General Eric Holder said we were owed.