Expert discusses U.S. torture policy

Published: April 12th, 2010

Category: Events, News

“You’re getting uncomfortable, and you should get uncomfortable,” Marjorie Cohn told her audience. Visible was the shuffling, squirming, and downward stares as Cohn detailed the pain, humiliation, and anguish that she says have been inflicted upon detainees in United States custody, authorized by top United States government officials.

On April 8, Cohn visited the Levin College of Law to share her outrage and legal expertise concerning the contested legality of the enhanced interrogation techniques used on detainees in U.S. custody. Cohn’s visit was hosted by UF Law’s American Constitution Society.

Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. She is also the immediate past president of the National Lawyers Guild and author of several books. In 2008, Cohn testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties concerning the Bush administration’s policies on torture. She is also the recipient of the Peace Scholar of the Year Award from the Peace and Justice Studies Association.

According to Cohn, there is no question that techniques such as water boarding are indeed torture and that the War on Terror has brought with it numerous instances of U.S.-perpetrated torture, in violation of both U.S. and international law.

“Whether somebody is a prisoner of war or not, he or she must always be treated humanely. There are no gaps in the Geneva Convention,” Cohn said.

She elaborated further, stating, “When the United States passes a treaty, it becomes law under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which says that treaties shall be the supreme law of the land.”

Cohn addressed the much-publicized practice of water boarding, which she described as the practice of placing a detainee on an inclined board such that his head is below his feet and then pouring water into his nose and mouth “until he almost suffocates or drowns.”

“[Water boarding] has long been considered torture. In fact, many U.S. Federal Court decisions call it torture. Japanese generals were prosecuted by the United States for water boarding as torture,” Cohn said. She added that during the Bush administration, detainees in U.S. custody were water boarded nonetheless and, in at least one instance, a detainee was water boarded up to 183 times throughout his detainment.

Cohn argued that legal advisors to former president George W. Bush skirted U.S. and international law to authorize the use of torture against detainees in U.S. custody.

“What they did was to come up with so-called legal reasoning to fit the result that the Bush Administration wanted…they were twisting the law,” Cohn stated.

Their advice led to a 2002 announcement by George W. Bush that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the treatment Taliban and Al-Qaeda members, Cohn said.

“There is precedent in our law for holding lawyers criminally liable for giving legally erroneous advice that resulted in great physical harm or death,” she said, advocating for Bush’s legal advisors who endorsed the use of torture to be held criminally liable. Until those responsible for implementing the practice of torturing detainees are held responsible, Cohn places responsibility for action in the hands of the citizens:“It is up to us, as citizens of this country, to pressure our government – both the White House and Congress, in any way we can.”