In the wake of the US Senate’s 90-to-9 vote in favor of a measure that would prohibit “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” human rights activists across the country are mounting an increasingly visible campaign to push the issue of torture to its tipping point. Amnesty International USA has organized hundreds of teach-ins on prisoner and detainee abuse in the past two months, while dozens of other groups have launched educational and legislative initiatives on the issue. And this coming weekend in Georgia, the annual protest against the School of the Americas–which has served as one of the clearest manifestations of US torture practices since Pentagon documents revealed the existence of courses advocating abusive tactics in 1996–is expected to draw a record number of demonstrators.
Responding to the Senate measure, proposed by John McCain in October as an amendment to a military appropriations bill, the White House has taken to defending torture at all costs. President Bush has threatened to veto any bill that contains the McCain amendment, and Vice President Cheney is vigorously lobbying lawmakers for an exemption for the CIA. “It’s quite shocking what Vice President Cheney is saying,” says David Danzig, manager of Human Rights First’s End Torture Now campaign. “He’s saying that US agents ought to be given the option to be abusive, and possibly to torture, in the field. It’s not surprising that so few people are lining up behind him.”
Indeed, despite its attempts to strong-arm the Senate, the White House has won little support for its position. And perhaps even more important, it has drawn opponents of torture to the forefront of the national debate, triggering surges in membership and activity for human rights organizations. “The response and eagerness of people across America has been surprising and heartening,” says Eric Sears, campaign manager for Amnesty International USA’s Denounce Torture Initiative, a project launched earlier this year. “We know a majority of Americans are opposed to torture, so it’s really a matter of putting the materials in their hands so they can take action.”
Aside from its teach-ins, Amnesty has organized a series of lobbying efforts and letter-writing campaigns, focusing not only on the McCain amendment but also on legislation that would ban “extraordinary rendition” and require strict standards for transferring detainees to countries with poor track records on torture.
Human Rights First, formerly known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, has experienced a sharp increase in activity and support as well; in fact, the group’s database of supporters on the torture issue has grown from 10,000 a year ago to roughly 50,000 today. Smaller groups, many with no paid staff members, have also been extremely active. Journey for Justice, which features torture survivors speaking out about their experiences, has held well-attended events in California, Arizona and Texas in the past two weeks alone.
As for rallies in the streets, the SOA protest, which takes place every November at Fort Benning, Georgia, is set for Saturday and Sunday. Though the event focuses primarily on US military policies concerning Latin America–the SOA itself is a training institution for Latin American soldiers–the torture issue has assumed a strong presence there over the course of the past decade. In September 1996, the Pentagon acknowledged that the SOA, which was officially renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001, utilized field manuals advocating torture from 1982 to 1991. That revelation not only established a long-suspected link between the US military and countless human rights atrocities in El Salvador, Colombia and elsewhere; it also tagged the SOA as a national symbol of torture and abuse. “Torture is a big issue for us,” says Roy Bourgeois, the Catholic priest who founded SOA Watch in 1990, “and it’s something we always address at our gathering.”
Although the various individuals and organizations working against torture share similar long-term objectives, there are, as with any movement of this size, subtle differences between them concerning motivations and priorities. Some former prisoners of war and retired military officers take action in part on the logic that torturing prisoners and detainees places US soldiers in greater danger, while others embrace a less pragmatic approach, simply viewing torture as a crime against humanity. With regard to priorities, different groups assess torture and abuse from their own unique perspectives, and as a result tend to shape separate, distinctive strategies. For example, Human Rights First and several other organizations have advocated for an independent authority similar to the 9/11 commission to investigate the abuse scandals in US prisons and detention centers, while Human Rights Watch has also called for the appointment of a special counsel.
From a broader perspective, however, such differences are relatively slight, especially given the sharp contrasts in Washington’s version of the torture debate. So in the weeks and months ahead, human rights activists, united in their opposition to torture and abuse, could well have a major influence on the outcome of the McCain amendment, as well as numerous related measures pending on Capitol Hill. “We’ve taken a huge step forward with the McCain amendment,” says Danzig, the campaign manager with Human Rights First, “but there’s a lot further to go.”