Why is June Torture Awareness Month?

Torture activism in front of the White HouseEvery year, human rights organizations like Amnesty International, Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, National Religious Campaign Against Torture and the Center for Victims of Torture mark June as Torture Awareness Month. Why?

The short answer is because it’s when a very important treaty against torture took effect and there are still people who flout it—people like Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA official who went on 60 Minutes recently to promote waterboarding and other forms of torture and ill-treatment.

Let’s start with the law. It’s called the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT for short) and it entered into force on June 26, 1987. That’s why June 26 is marked as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture—and why we’re calling on President Obama to apologize to torture survivor Maher Arar on that day. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

5 Books Tell of US Torture in Post 9/11 World

Ok, I know it sounds depressing to pick a book about torture for your summer beach reading, but the following books that tell the tale of US torture since 9/11 are actually compelling reads that will inspire your human rights activism during Torture Awareness Month and beyond.

I know there are plenty of other indispensable books against torture–please share your suggestions in the comments section; one random commentor will receive an autographed copy of former US military interrogator Matthew Alexander’s “Kill or Capture” (number 3 below).

One other thing: if you buy books (or anything else) from Amazon.com via this referral link, Amnesty International will receive between 5 – 10% of the sale.


9/11 Families Speak Out Against Torture

By Adele Welty, with Marianne Stone, of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows

On September 11th, my son, a Firefighter intent on saving lives, lost his life at the World Trade Center.

I am a member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group born out of the grief of losing family members in the attacks of 9/11 that promotes nonviolent options in the pursuit of justice rather than revenge.


Help End Torture: Join Our Webinar for Activists

Maher Arar Grassroots Activism

Amnesty activists created a giant paper airplane petition calling on President Obama and Congress to apologize to Maher Arar at the AGM in San Francisco in March 2011.

What can you do to help end torture during Torture Awareness Month? Start by joining an interactive webinar with Amnesty International staff and other activists on Thursday, June 9th at 8 PM EDT/ 5 PM PDT. The discussion will focus on how grassroots activism can be used to end torture and hold governments accountable for human rights violations.

Sunday, June 26th marks the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the focal point of June’s Torture Awareness Month. During this month, the Security with Human Rights (SWHR) campaign of Amnesty International is focusing attention on the moving case of Maher Arar.

Arar, a Canadian national, was detained at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York while traveling home from a family trip to Tunisia in 2002. US officials then sent him to Syria where he was tortured and illegally imprisoned for almost one year. In a June 1, 2011 blog post, Tom Parker, Policy Director for the SWHR campaign, described how this innocent man was swept up by the post-9/11 US national security program. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Stand Up For Torture Victim Maher Arar

Maher Arar

Maher Arar, ©Amnesty International

Today we mark the beginning of Torture Awareness Month by highlighting the case of Maher Arar.

Arar, a Canadian telecommunications engineer, was detained by US immigration while transiting New York on his way home from a family holiday and plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare of torture and abuse.

In September 2002 Arar was traveling through JFK airport when he was pulled aside by US officials. Canadian police had generated a deeply flawed intelligence report based on a brief social encounter in Ottawa between Arar and ‘a person of interest.’ US officials accepted it without question and Arar’s nightmare began.

Despite his citizenship and residency in Canada, Arar was handed over illegally to the Syrian government – a country whose human rights record the United States has routinely condemned. He was held for 374 days before he was finally released and returned home:

Torture Awareness Month

Speaking in Grand Rapids, Michigan, last Wednesday former President George W. Bush appeared to take personal responsibility for the decision to waterboard Khalid Sheikh Mohammed:

“Yeah, we waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I’d do it again to save lives.”

The former President’s comments remove any lingering doubt that may have remained that torture was sanctioned at the highest level of his administration.

The lack of public outcry at his remarks demonstrates all too clearly how for most Americans torture has become an acceptable tool in America’s counter-terrorism arsenal.

Prior to September 11th waterboarding was unequivocally regarded as torture in American jurisprudence. Sleep deprivation was a tool used by Stalin’s secret police. Mock executions were associated with Hollywood villains not Congressional candidates.

Then everything changed. People got scared and unscrupulous politicians sold the idea that thuggish criminality was the only route to public safety. In reality, we got less safe not more. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo created droves of new recruits for Al Qaeda and got hundreds, if not thousands, of American servicemen and women killed.

America’s decision to turn to the dark side, as Dick Cheney memorably put it, alienated our allies and made it difficult for foreign governments to work with us. It has made them more likely to withhold vital intelligence and less likely to work alongside US troops. This also makes us less safe.

We need to reboot. The election of President Obama seemed to offer that opportunity but he let it slip away. Like Dick Cheney during the Vietnam War – the President had other priorities and now torture is slowly creeping back into the mainstream.

In the past months reports have surfaced that US personnel are using sleep deprivation, enforced isolation and physical violence on prisoners held in a secret screening facility in Bagram, Afghanistan.

We have seen this movie before. Abuse inevitably escalates and America’s reputation will just as inevitably be further tarnished.

There was a time in America when torture was considered beyond the pale. The landmark 1980 case Filártiga v. Peña-Irala opened the way for foreign torturers to be pursued in US courts. The panel of American judges that heard the case commented:

“For the purposes of civil liability the torturer has become – like the pirate and the slave trader before him – hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind.”

I don’t know about you but I miss that America. However, it wasn’t destroyed by Osama bin Laden but by those who made political capital out of the 9/11 tragedy and by the rest of us who let them.

The Soccer World Cup is not the only global event happening this month. June is international torture awareness month. Amnesty is calling on its supporters to sign up to host an event to raise awareness that torture remains a central issue in American public life.

We cannot claim America has changed until we confront this issue and lay it to rest. Torture is both illegal and morally abhorrent. Just societies do not use it. Period. We need to send our government the message that they cannot just look the other way.

We need to reestablish the norm against torture in American politics. But we can’t do it without you. You need to raise your voice. So please get involved in torture awareness month and help rebuild an America we can all believe in.