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Obama takes big step toward restoring U.S. moral leadership

In his inaugural speech, President Barack Obama spoke of the “false choice between our safety and our ideals.” These words were a subtle but important signal that monumental policy change would be coming in regard to U.S. interrogation rules.

Just two days later we saw those words put into action with Obama’s signing of the executive order “Ensuring Lawful Interrogation” — along with  two others that ordered a systemic review of detention policies and the closing of  the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay within a year.

We now have an opportunity to restore the values and guiding principles that have shaped America for centuries. Obama’s order banning torture not only sends an unmistakable signal to the world, but also to our soldiers in the field — who, in times of great tension, understand the discipline required to keep things in control and still adhere to our values.

A crucial move and a broader opportunity
With the signing of this order, we can begin the crucial step of restoring U.S. moral leadership.

In so doing, the United States can set its sights on a broader human-rights agenda that redoubles our commitment to healing torture survivors. We will need stronger leadership — America can set the standard not just for ending torture but also for the promotion and healing of survivors of torture.

In supporting healing, the United States recognizes the harm that torture inflicts on its victims, their families and entire communities.

Already, the United States has begun to build on our long tradition of caring for survivors. Earlier this year — with U.S. government funding — the Centre for Victims of Torture opened a center in Amman, Jordan, to treat Iraqi refugees who suffered torture. The program aims to provide direct services to nearly 1,000 survivors and support to 4,500 family members in the first year alone.

Iraqi refugees will include torture survivors
With the United States committed to accepting 12,000 Iraqi refugees this year and increased numbers over the coming years, estimates indicate that this population, which lived under the brutality first of Saddam Hussein and then militia groups, will include a high proportion of torture survivors.

Demand for services far exceeds resources. We can build on the transformational work that U.S.-based torture treatment centers engage in by reinvigorating U.S. government funding for those programs. Congress can send a message to the world about our commitment to human rights by providing the Torture Victims Relief Act with the funding stream needed to heal survivors living in cities and towns across the United States.

Douglas Johnson is the executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, which is based in Minneapolis. The president’s executive order embraces the Declaration of Principles for a Presidential Executive Order on Prisoner Treatment, Torture and Cruelty proposed by the Campaign to Ban Torture — which was founded by CVT, the National Religious Campaign against Torture and Evangelicals for Human Rights — and CVT’s mission to end the use of torture worldwide.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by myles spicer on 01/27/2009 - 10:52 am.

    Hats off to Mr Johnson. Nothing is more fundamental to the strength of our democracy and our constitution than ending torture, and restoring our long standing civil liberties, which were so badly eroded by the past administration.

  2. Submitted by Robert Pianka on 01/29/2009 - 12:31 pm.

    Douglas Johnson is right when he links President Obama’s about-face on interrogation techniques with a call to fund torture treatment. He quotes the President’s rejection of a “false choice between our safety and our ideals.” Much will be said about the restoration of our ideals, about how we dropped with one hand what we were trying to hold with the other. Something pointed though must also be said about our safety. After all, we adopted torture-grade interrogation to protect ourselves from danger. That is, we adopted the techniques used by dictators across the world in self-defense. The question is, though, can we defend ourselves by those means or do we weaken ourselves and our allies when we use them and become known for using them? Is it not in fact true that we have to bear the burden of our values in order to win against terror?

    Whether inflicted symbolically on one prominent individual or actually on a significant percentage of a population, torture, rape, and murder are usually political means to a political end: power. I personally witnessed the symbolic and actual subjugation of entire populations in the Former-Yugoslavia in 1994 and in Iraq in 2004. Terror is a surprisingly easy thing to inflict on “victims, their families and entire communities”. Terror drains the qualities required of a free citizen: independent thought, free speech, association with others, etc. Terror is also surprisingly easy to renew. An occasional symbolic beating in public is all that is required to re-traumatize a whole people.

    I am sure that Mr. Johnson’s Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), with its current experience in Amman and its anticipated experience in the USA with thousands of Iraqi refugees has insights valuable to all of us about how to “win the war on terror”. You beat terror by not running scared, by standing for an alternative world where terror has no imaginable place, by protecting people from it, and by helping people recover from it. An America that adheres to its values in public and in practice will be able to stand distinctly against dictators and strengthen its true allies: every common man, woman, and child that someone wants to terrorize into submission.

    Douglas Johnson’s call for increased and stable funding for torture treatment here and abroad is the most sensible idea for defense spending I have heard in years. We should have started using CVT’s tools to rehabilitate Iraqis and their communities back in 2003 when we broke down the door of their national gulag and expected and needed popular support. If we want to see countries like Iraq reconstructed we have to start by strengthening the foundation, by helping the population to live free of fear.

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