Torture, the Geneva Conventions and the School of the Americas

IssueDecember 2006 - January 2007
Comment by Ann Wright

I spoke for the first time at the School of the Americas Watch protest at Fort Benning, Georgia, on Saturday 27 November, 2006. As a US Army veteran with 29 years of active and reserve duty who retired as a Colonel, I felt tremendous emotions addressing over 20,000 protesters from a stage in front of the gates of a major US military installation.

We were there as witnesses to a history of involvement in torture by graduates of the US military's School of the Americas (SOA), now known by its less notorious name, the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation.

Standing with me were seven members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, including two war resisters. Darrell Anderson, who returned from Canada in October 2006 and was discharged from the US Army; and Kyle Snyder, who also returned from Canada and attempted to turn himself into the US Army.

School of torture

I had served three years in the middle 1980s with the US military's Southern Command in Panama while the School of the Americas was still located there. People in Central and South America were tortured by members of their militaries throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Some of the known torturers attended the School of the Americas.

When I was in the military, I never heard from other US military personnel that SOA was training students in torture techniques. But there were rumours from non-military organisations of SOA involvement. I thought that if the rumours were true, surely we would hear about it through the informal communications network that operates very effectively in the US military.

In 1996, seven Spanish language military manuals prepared by SOA surfaced -- they advocated such tactics as executions of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse and paying bounties for enemies. These documents came to light because of an investigation of the involvement of the CIA in Guatemala. But I still thought that it wouldn't be the US military teaching such methods, but maybe the Central Intelligence Agency, using a US military installation and dressing in US military uniforms.

Iraq and Afghanistan

But then the US military went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Photos of the abusive treatment of prisoners in Bagram Air Base and Kandahar, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib made me question the professionalism of the US military and what was being taught in military schools.

Perhaps there was a program of instruction that taught torture techniques to military intelligence, CIA and contract or interrogators. The Bush administration's “torture memos” certainly provided the environment for the military to “take off the gloves,” a statement attributed to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's counsel, according to a 12 June, 2002 Justice Department document.

We now know the sordid history of abuses and torture that occurred from 2001 to 2005 and that are probably still happening.

Bringing the war home

With so many US military and CIA personnel involved in some level of abuse toward detainees and prisoners, what is the emotional toll taken on them when they know they are conducting harmful, as well as illegal, actions against those in their custody? Do military, CIA and contract interrogators, military police, medical personnel, and military and civilian lawyers who have gone along with the torture policy, suffer from post traumatic stress disorder following their tours in Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Guanatanamo and secret prisons? Are their abusive behaviours brought home? The answer to both questions is yes.

Recently made public was the September 2003 suicide of US Army interrogator Alyssa Peterson, who was an Arabic speaking interrogator assigned to the prison at the Talafar airbase in far northwestern Iraq near the Syrian border. According to the report of the US army's investigation into her death, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Peterson objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners. She refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage and, shortly after, committed suicide.

In the past five years, thousands of military police, military interrogators, medical and legal staff and hundreds of CIA personnel have been involved with detainees and prisoners. So many persons associated with the prisons in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered emotional damage that Eve Ensler wrote a play concerning the experience of one interrogator entitled The Treatment. The play chronicles the psychological damage done to an Army interrogator who abused a prisoner and the treatment he needed to address the demons released by his actions.

While there has been no specific study of those involved in detaining and imprisoning persons in Afghanistan and Iraq, suicides, family abuse and inability to function because of the trauma of the experiences in those countries is at an all-time high in the US military. In 2002, four Special Forces soldiers murdered their wives on their return from Afghanistan.

Conventions & Commissions

Have military leaders objected to the Bush administration's torture policies? Senior military lawyers strongly disagreed with the Bush administration's decision to call those detained in Afghanistan and other countries “enemy combatants” and thereby deny them protections accorded to prisoners of war (POWs). Interrogation techniques authorised by the Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, Presidential legal counsellor, now Attorney General, Antonio Gonzalez and a group of political appointee civilian lawyers, and a few military lawyers, clearly amounted to torture.

Now the US Congress, through the 2006 Military Commissions Act, has undercut the important provisions of the Geneva Conventions forbidding torture, by authorising “alternative” interrogation techniques and preventing bringing to trial any US citizen who committed criminal actions related to torture prior to 31 December 2005.

While at the School of the Americas Watch protest, I visited the SOA School and spoke to the chief of the Human Rights division, a US Army Major. I asked him how he now taught the Geneva Conventions to the international classes that come through the school. Did he teach the original Geneva Conventions or the new, modified, US version of the Conventions? The Major without hesitation said that since the students represent governments that, at least officially, have not changed the language of the Conventions, he would teach the original Geneva conventions.

On the offensive

Ironically, it is now in the US military schools with international students that US personnel will be exposed to the original Geneva Conventions that prohibit torture in all forms, including the “alternative” methods that the Bush administration and the US Congress now condone but which are still criminal in international law. Military schools with only US students will teach the Bush version of the Conventions.

But not all countries want US military training. After much lobbying by families of victims of torture, the Defence ministers of Argentina and Uruguay in March, 2006 notified the United States that their countries would not longer send students to the School of the Americas due to its legacy of torture and social repression. Venezuela had earlier stopped sending students to the school.

But the Bush administration is on the offensive to provide military training, even to those countries that courageously stood up to the administration's demand for exemption of US soldiers from prosecution for war crimes. On 2 October 2006, because of its concern at the rise of populist governments in Latin America, the Bush administration without fanfare lifted the 2002 US prohibition of training militaries from 22 countries that refused to exempt US soldiers.

Repeal and close

The reputation and stature of the United States has been incredibly damaged by the torture and abuses from graduates of the School of the Americas over the past thirty years and by torture perpetrated by the US military and the CIA on behalf of the Bush administration.

For the integrity of our country and the moral structure of our military, we citizens of the United States must demand that the new Congress, as one of the first items of business, close the School of the Americas and repeal the torture and criminal free-pass provisions of the Military Commissions act.

We are complicit in the abuses if we do not get SOA closed and the legalisation of torture repealed.

Topics: Human rights