KIEV, Ukraine – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that the United States had barred all of its personnel from engaging in cruel or inhumane interrogations of prisoners. Her statement appears to mark a significant shift in U.S. policy.
“As a matter of U.S. policy, the United States’ obligations under the C.A.T. (U.N. Convention Against Torture), which prohibits cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment – those obligations extend to U.S. personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the United States or outside of the United States,” Rice said during a news conference with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.
Rice’s tour of Europe has been dogged by questions concerning the treatment of prisoners at secret CIA prisons. She issued a detailed statement on U.S. policy before she left for Europe on Monday, but confusion has reigned in the United States and Europe over its precise meaning. Rice’s aides had indicated to reporters traveling with her that she was eager to clear up the issue.
The United States is a signatory to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, in which nations agree not to use torture and pledge to prevent cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners.
In the past, however, the Bush administration has argued that the obligations concerning cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment do not apply outside U.S. territory.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former prisoner of war, has sought legislation to ban the practice by U.S.-employed agents overseas.
Vice President Dick Cheney has fought hard against McCain’s efforts, but in recent days the White House has signaled that it is open to negotiations with McCain.
Separately, Rice sharply criticized a Russian law restricting the activities of human rights groups, promoters of democracy and other independent organizations.
The rebuke of the Russian government was notable because administration officials previously have been hesitant to publicly criticize the law despite concerns that it will virtually shut down civil society in Russia.
The Washington Post reported Nov. 2 that the CIA has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al-Qaida captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe as part of a covert prison system that at various times has included sites in eight countries, including Thailand and Afghanistan.
The Post did not identify the Eastern European countries at the request of senior U.S. officials, who said the disclosure could disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and make them targets of retaliation.
The Post article spurred a series of probes across Europe. Last week, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw wrote Rice on behalf of the European Union, asking for “clarification” of media reports suggesting “violations of international law.”
At every stop of her European tour, Rice has been questioned about the CIA practices.