Civil Liberties

Torture Bearers


Last spring the United Nations accused the United States of violating provisions of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. ratified in 1994. According to a report from the U.N. Committee Against Torture, American police and prison guards have a record of discriminatory prisoner abuse, female prisoners are often raped by prison personnel, and public chain gangs are still in use. The committee is demanding, among other things, that torture be made a federal crime, that electroshock stun belts be banned, and that juveniles not be held in prisons with adult populations.

Amnesty International filed its own 45-page report to the committee, detailing specific actions by U.S. police officials. The abuses included the shocking of a California prisoner by a 50,000-volt stun gun for eight seconds in open court at a judge's order; widespread shackling of children in a South Dakota juvenile detention center; the death of a Texas inmate after he was pepper-sprayed while tied in a restraining chair; and the use of pepper spray swabbed directly into the eyes of anti-logging and anti-World Trade Organization protesters in the Pacific Northwest.

All signatories of the convention were supposed to file reports on torture in their countries. The U.S. report was officially due in 1996 but was delivered only this year. A State Department spokesman says the United States will take the U.N. committee's recommendations under consideration, but stresses that "Article II of the convention leaves it up to signatory state parties to decide how to comply with its promise to eliminate torture." For example, the U.S. insists it can rely on its own "cruel and unusual punishment" standard under American constitutional law, although many foreign governments argue that capital punishment, legal here, is covered by the convention's ban on "torture" and "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."