Michael Ratner: Prosecution of Bush Cheney and Rumsfeld will have to be done in other countries as Obama has refused to pursue it
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, coming to you from New York City. We’re at Rizzoli Bookstore in New York, who generously provided the space. Human Rights Watch issued a report recently that not only said that President Bush and Vice President Cheney should be prosecuted for crimes, particularly to do with torture, but they also said that President Obama violated the law by not doing so. Now joining us to discuss all of this is Michael Ratner. Michael is the president at the Center for Constitutional Rights. And for full transparency, he’s also a member of the board of The Real News Network Thanks for joining us.
MICHAEL RATNER, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS, AUTHOR: Nice to be here, Paul.
JAY: So what did you make of the Human Rights Watch report?
RATNER: You know, it was terrific. I mean, Human Rights Watch has been consistent, really, since the torture conspiracy has begun and unfolded about demanding that there be an investigation and prosecution of the major perpetrators of the torture conspiracy. And, of course, that’s the president, Bush; Vice President Cheney; it’s Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense; the lawyers as well. And they’ve insisted on an investigation, and they’ve put out two reports over the years, one in 2005 or 2006, and one just recently, which was a compilation of all the material, including the recent material that came out over the last year, that people were waterboarded 185 times, etc., and it was a really hard-hitting report. And it not only said the US should prosecute, but if there’s a failure by the US to prosecute–and they said there is a failure–then the national courts of other countries ought to prosecute. And we can talk about that, ’cause it’s some of the work we’re pursuing in Spain and in Switzerland against some of the key members of the Bush administration.
JAY: Before we talk about that, is there anything that can be done? If they’re correct and the Obama administration is violating the law by not prosecuting, what can Americans do in order to hold the Obama administration accountable?
RATNER: Well, this is always the question: how do you hold lawless administrations accountable? Now, what Human Rights Watch said and what has been clear for a long time is, when the US signed the Convention Against Torture, which has been signed by 148 countries, that convention requires every country to investigate any torturers on their territory. And if they don’t do that, they’re violating the convention and violating the law. And the law that Human Rights Watch is referring to is that the US is a signatory and has ratified the Convention Against Torture, which says that if you have torturers on your territory or if torturers come into your to your territory, they have to be investigated and prosecuted, or they have to be extradited to a country that will do it if they’re not from the home country. So where Obama is going wrong and where he’s violating the law is by giving a free pass to people who are not just suspected of being torturers, but people who have admitted to carrying out acts that constitute torture. George Bush, for example, in his recent autobiography, talked about waterboarding, which, as all your listeners, I’m sure, know, is a form of torture. It’s one the US has condemned continuously up until the Bush administration. We prosecuted people for it. It’s one the French used in Algeria; they were prosecuted for it. It’s a huge, huge issue. It’s clearly torture. And so Bush admitted in his book that he would torture, and he said he would torture again. And then what did Obama do? His reaction to all of that, to all of those admissions, to the 183 waterboardings, is to say we’re going to look forward, we’re not going to look backward. And that’s completely disingenuous. Obviously–.
JAY: Yeah. There’d been no judicial system if that was applied to crime.
RATNER: Right. It would be all pre-crime, right, or something like that.
JAY: [incompr.] Tom Cruise movies.
RATNER: Right. It would be all nothing. It would be–the whole theory of the criminal justice system is that you commit a criminal act and you get tried for it as in part a deterrence that you won’t commit future criminal acts.
JAY: So is there any judicial mechanism, for example, the Center for Constitutional Rights or some other body could actually take the administration to court and try to actually sue, I guess, in some way that the administration’s violating the law?
RATNER: The Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU have brought scores, probably, of cases in the United States court to try and get some accountability for torture. We can’t bring criminal cases. Our system in the United States is one in which we can only bring cases for damages. It’s the prosecutor who brings the criminal cases. And unlike Europe, there’s no way that a individual or an organization can come in on the prosecution side. So we bring these civil cases. We bring them for torture at Guantanamo. We bring them for torture at Abu Ghraib. We bring them directly against Donald Rumsfeld. We bring them all over the place. Every single case–including one of your citizens, Maher Arar, a case we brought on his behalf because of his torture in Syria, sent there by the United States for the purpose of being tortured–we brought every one of those cases. Every one has been dismissed by the United States courts, either because they claim–in Maher Arar’s case particularly outrageous–that while it may have been illegal to torture people in the United States, it wasn’t clearly illegal to send someone abroad for torture.
JAY: Okay. No, I’m asking specifically: the Obama administration, if they’re violating these treaties and laws thus, is there a way to go after, directly, the Obama administration for this?
RATNER: The answer is no, there’s not. Not–no legal mechanism in the courts to do that.
JAY: So it would have to come out of Congress?
RATNER: There’s no way to do it. There’s no–we have to come from a prosecutor saying the US attorney, the attorney general saying, you’re violating the law and we’ll go after you for that. Well, the US attorney is Eric Holder, appointed by Obama. I mean, what are we talking about here, Paul? Congress can’t do it. Congress could conceivably impeach someone who violates a treaty. They’ve–you know, that’s very unlikely. So we’re not talking about any mechanism. There are international mechanisms we can use–violation of the Convention Against Torture. There’s UN mechanisms. They won’t necessarily lead to criminal prosecutions. They lead to a little bit of trouble, which is–in the position of the most powerful country in the world, where we are, is about what you can do.
JAY: Talk a little bit about the international options, then.
RATNER: The international options have been options that we at the center have been pursuing, really, since about 2004. National courts, which is to say the courts of any country, all are parties to the Convention Against Torture, and a lot of them actually have laws that say, we will prosecute, we will investigate and prosecute torturers on our territory. And unlike the United States, organizations in those countries, victims or survivors of torture in those countries, are allowed to try and bring cases into courts and get them looked at by investigating judges. We have not been very successful, but we have been somewhat successful in doing that. So we began by going to Germany, which had a very good law, partly coming out of the Holocaust experience. We eventually lost those cases in Germany. The court said, well, we’re not sure the US won’t investigate, etc. Then we went to France. We got a very bad decision in France. Rumsfeld was actually in France when we tried to do it. We were unable to. Two other cases, though, are more optimistic. Bush, our former president, was about to make his first trip to Switzerland about two months ago, and he was invited there, and it was going to be his first trip outside the United States, not just to Switzerland. And we prepared a torture complaint to file in Switzerland, which, about two days before, we had to give the Swiss authorities notice we’re about to file this. Bush then canceled his trip to Switzerland. So–and it was clearly because of that.
JAY: Is there any international forum, or, I should say, another country, where one could actually launch a case against the Obama administration for violating the treaty?
RATNER: With great difficulty. I’m not sure there is. It would have to come within their law as a treaty violation, and most of them wouldn’t be that direct against Obama. But it’s certainly one–it’s intriguing, it’s one worth looking at, but it’s not one that we have yet looked at pursuing. The other case that we’ve been very successful at is we’ve sued the key people in the Bush administration in Spain. And one of the judges who had replaced the judge Garzon, who had been booted out because of wanting to open up the Spanish Civil War cases, one of those judges actually opened a case that’s currently pending before a judge in Spain. Geoffrey Miller, the former head of GuantÃ¡namo, is the main defendant right now in that case. He’s the first one we’ve been able to actually get testimony taken against. He was also the one who said we’re going to Gitmo-ize Iraq. That’s what led to Abu Ghraib. So Spain is going to be very successful, I think. And at this point, the one thing you can say is none of these guys are going to be visiting the Prado very soon. I mean, none of these Bush, etc., group are going to go. So I feel strongly that we’re moving in a right direction. It took 30 years to get Pinochet. I’m not sure it will take so long to get these guys.
JAY: Thanks for joining us. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network, coming to you today from Rizzoli Bookstore in New York City.
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