U.S. defends human rights record before U.N. committee in Geneva

By Matthew Schofield
Knight Ridder Newspapers

GENEVA - U.S. officials defended the United States on Friday against allegations that it's allowed the torture of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying the United States has an "absolute commitment" to eradicating torture and preventing abuse.

The U.N. Committee Against Torture met the defense with skepticism, accusing American officials of playing word games and of mounting a legalistic defense rather than confronting specific accusations of prisoner abuse.

"There is the rule of law, and the rule of what is right," said committee member Guibril Camara, of Senegal.

The U.S. defense and the committee members' comments came during the opening meeting of a two-day hearing into American adherence to the U.N. Convention Against Torture. U.S. officials are expected to return Monday to respond to questions.

The hearing is intended to probe a variety of American activities, including long-standing issues in domestic prisons ranging from the psychological strain to inmates of living on death row to the use of stun guns by guards.

But the meeting quickly focused on interrogation methods that U.S. intelligence agents have used on prisoners taken during the war on terrorism. Those methods have been criticized in the United States and worldwide.

"I want to reiterate the United States government's absolute commitment to upholding our national and international obligations to eradicate torture and to prevent cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment anywhere," State Department legal adviser John B. Bellinger III said in opening remarks.

Bellinger argued that the American treatment of detainees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo fell outside the U.N. Convention Against Torture. He said the U.N. convention was "never intended to apply to armed conflicts" but was aimed at protecting people in "the ordinary domestic legal processes."

That line of defense, however, won little praise from the committee.


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