06.26.13

Remarks of Senator Patrick Leahy At The Center For Victims Of Torture Eclipse Award

I appreciate this award, but frankly, in all honesty, it should not exist.  This award should not exist.

The fact that each year the Center for Victims of Torture presents this award to someone who has worked on behalf of torture survivors and for the prevention of torture, tells us a lot about the world today.

It is shocking that in 2013, sixty-four years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, torture is still practiced in the vast majority of countries.  

While most Americans might assume, or prefer to think, that torture is only used by a handful of totalitarian governments like China, Iran and North Korea, that is sadly not the case at all.

Torture was used by our own government, and it has been used by many of our allies. 

We have seen how people who use torture are not – as many governments insist – only the rogue police officer or soldier acting contrary to state policy.  They often act with the overt support or tacit approval of their superiors, knowing that they won’t be punished and that they may even be promoted. 

Nor are torture victims only the poorest people who are most vulnerable to abuse. Victims of torture can be anyone. 

We also know that some of the same horrifying methods developed during the Dark Ages to inflict physical and psychological pain and suffering are commonly used today. 

I have to admit that before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan if someone had asked me if the United States was capable of having a policy of torturing prisoners of war, I would have said absolutely not. 

After all, we are a party to the Convention Against Torture.  I trusted that alone answered the question. 

We soon learned that the United States not only used torture, top officials in the prior Administration openly defended its use.  They just called it something else – enhanced interrogation techniques. 

And while this Administration has repudiated torture, we must still ask ourselves whether force feeding hunger striking prisoners at Guantanamo – many of whom have never been convicted of any crime and yet have no hope of release, or long periods of solitary confinement which is routinely used in our prisons, violate the Convention not to mention our own Constitution. 

Do we condone these same practices when carried out by repressive governments?  I think not.

What sets the United States apart is what we stand for.  Our values.  The example we set.  After 9/11, we saw how easily those values can be sacrificed by the very people who have a responsibility to protect them. 

Suddenly torture was treated as a necessity, the lesser of evils, and those who condemned it were accused of being unpatriotic.

Throughout all this, the Center for Victims of Torture has stayed true to its mission, helping torture survivors recover and rebuild their lives.  I congratulate you for it. 

And over the years, as chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that provides the funding to carry out our foreign policy, I have made a point of increasing the amount available to help torture survivors – through organizations like the Center for Victims of Torture and the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. 

We also include a prohibition on the use of any funds to support or justify the use of torture, cruel or inhumane treatment by any U.S. government official.  One would think that would not be necessary, but we learned the hard way.

I have also sponsored, with Senator James Inhofe, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma who has visited some of the worst prisons in Africa, legislation to help foreign countries eliminate inhumane conditions in their prisons.  

Millions of people languish in prisons that are so overcrowded they cannot even lie down, in sweltering heat, vulnerable to physical abuse and deadly contagious diseases, often for years before they are even brought before a judge, where corruption is rampant and fair trials are virtually impossible.   

Each year, some torture survivors are lucky enough to find their way to the United States as refugees or asylum seekers.  Too often, however, our current law results in the needless denial, rejection or delay of legitimate claims, leaving this vulnerable population without the protection America has historically provided.

I have worked for years to repeal some of the harshest elements of current law through the Refugee Protection Act.  I am pleased that the immigration reform bill the Senate is poised to pass later this week includes several provisions from this legislation.

One of the most important changes is the repeal of the one-year filing deadline for refugees seeking asylum. That arbitrary deadline has prevented thousands of persecuted people from receiving the protection they need, including victims of torture.  Statistics show that this deadline disproportionately impacts women and girls – those fleeing the threat of genital mutilation, child marriage, systemic rape, and honor killings. 

Too often the shame associated with their persecution leads them to remain silent until it is too late.  But the shame should be ours.  It is unacceptable that we turn these legitimate claims away based on an arbitrary technicality, as if the trauma suffered and the risk of persecution expired along with the legal deadline.

It is clear that we all have a lot of work left to do to create a world where torture does not exist.  I want to thank each of you for all you do to hasten the arrival of that day.  Your advocacy and the care you provide to victims of torture here in the United States and around the world are critically important.

Thank you again for this award.  Let’s keep working together.

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