The United Nations Committee Against Torture recently began its latest review of the United States’ record on torture.
With the country and world facing a Trump presidency, it is essential that international bodies and the global community scrutinize the United States’ actions. Now is the time stand up for the rights of marginalized populations, including women, people of color, and religious and ethnic minorities. And there’s ample reason for supporters of abortion access to take note.
On the campaign trail, President-elect Donald Trump said: “Torture works. OK, folks? You know, I have these guys—‘Torture doesn’t work!’—believe me, it works. And waterboarding is your minor form. Some people say it’s not actually torture. Let’s assume it is. But they asked me the question: ‘What do you think of waterboarding?’ ‘Absolutely fine.’ But we should go much stronger than waterboarding. That’s the way I feel.”
Though President-elect Donald Trump has recently walked back this position, such statements and his cabinet appointments make clear that a Trump administration is going to send the United States crashing head first into international human rights law. And this goes far beyond harsh interrogation techniques.
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Under international law, the types of practices that constitute torture or cruel and inhuman treatment also include the denial of abortion services, so-called conversion therapy, and legislation or systematic policies that fail to protect women from violence.
This is the United States’ fourth review since it ratified the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1994. During the last review in 2014, the Committee expressed concerns about a range of practices that violate the country’s international treaty obligations: extraordinary rendition, interrogation techniques, its continued operation of the Guantanamo prison, deportation policies, immigration detention, and police brutality.
And that was before Trump. Anyone familiar with his proposed policies can see the obvious conflicts brewing. The effect of this collision will be substantial and far-reaching, both in terms of individual rights and the United States’ international leadership.
Let’s take, for example, abortion.
The president-elect has plainly stated that he thinks that women who have abortions should be punished, and his vice president, former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, has one of the most anti-choice records in U.S. politics. Congressional leadership is no better; Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both have zero percent pro-choice ratings in 2015 from NARAL Pro-Choice America. And the GOP’s 2016 political platform was replete with commitments to roll back abortion rights, including support for a medically unsupported human life amendment to the Constitution.
Abortion is protected in the United States under Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right to privacy. But in fact, under international law, there is a wide variety of rights—beyond privacy—that are implicated when women are denied abortion services, including the right to be free from sex-based discrimination; the right to health; the right to life; and the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. The United States has signed and ratified treaties that require it to ensure these rights, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture. This, however, has not stopped anti-choice politicians from slowly chipping away at the narrower protections of Roe v. Wade.
Anti-choice measures they have enacted will be reviewed by the Committee Against Torture during its current session. Specifically, the U.S. abortion restrictions on foreign assistance—including the Helms and Siljander amendments—will be examined. These long-standing restrictions prohibit grantees of U.S. foreign assistance from using the money to perform abortion services, provide information about abortion, or work to change abortion laws abroad. As interpreted by the U.S. Agency for International Development, these congressional restrictions are applied as a total ban on abortion, without exceptions for rape, life endangerment, and incest—even for girls and women raped in war.
In today’s conflicts, sexual violence is used systemically against civilians to demoralize, terrorize, destroy, and even alter the ethnic compositions of entire communities. Rape and forced impregnation in war are now pervasive and ubiquitous problems. For many affected women and girls, abortion is safer than an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy, and the denial of these services results in extended, intensified physical and mental suffering.
Rape and sexual violence have been found to constitute war crimes, including torture. Survivors of war rape are torture victims entitled to rehabilitation and redress, which includes the option of abortion for those who become pregnant. Further, the denial of access to abortion itself, in particular to victims of rape or those whose lives are endangered by pregnancy, is on its own considered to constitute torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. U.S. abortion restrictions on foreign assistance inhibit women from being able to exercise these rights and, as such, contravene U.S. obligations under the Convention Against Torture.
Failure to take action on the Helms Amendment has been a blight on the Obama administration’s human rights record. In 2015, six countries expressed concern to the United States about this issue during their periodic review by the U.N. Human Rights Council. Under a Trump-Pence administration, this policy will likely become even more restrictive with the reinstatement of the so-called Global Gag Rule. As we prepare ourselves for what repressive abortion policies a Trump presidency and a Republican Congress may bring, it is important to remember that it is not only women and girls in the United States who will suffer, but also women and girls around the world.
When we have a government that is determined to circumvent the rights of its own citizens and people worldwide, international standards and protections are critical. While these international standards can often feel distant, processes such as the one undertaken by the Committee Against Torture are ways to bring these universal human rights home.
Much like a court, the committee reviews a country’s actions (or inactions) against a treaty’s legal standards. These experts then make recommendations to the countries on what they need to do to comply with their obligations. Human rights advocates from around the world have been able to use these processes to change laws, policies, and practices and obtain justice for the injured. The success of the human rights revolution of the past 60 years has resulted in powerful treaties and strong international human rights laws. They are clear guideposts against which the policies and practices of governments can be measured and evaluated.
Although President-elect Trump has yet to take office, his every action as president must be scrutinized. As he threatens to erode rights that are enshrined domestically, including those in the Constitution, these international standards will be increasingly important. It is now more vital than ever that when the United States violates its human rights obligations, it is held accountable by the international community and made to answer to the individuals it harms.
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