U.S. Ratification of the Multilateral Treaty Against Torture

The U.S. procedures for ratification of multilateral treaties are complicated and not widely understood. The following are the steps in that procedure:

  • The U.S. Government’s participating in the preparation of the treaty, including multiparty negotiation of its terms.
  • The President’s signing the treaty on behalf of the U.S. (This could also be done by another high-level official of the Administration.)
  • The President’s submitting the treaty to the U.S. Senate for its advice and consent under Article II, Section 2 (2) of the U.S. Constitution.
  • The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s conducting a hearing on whether the Senate should give its advice and consent to ratification of the treaty, taking a committee vote on that issue and reporting the results of the hearing and the vote to the full Senate.
  • The U.S. Senate’s debating a resolution to grant its advice and consent to ratification of the treaty and voting by at least two-thirds of those Senators present, under Article II, Section 2 (2) of the U.S. Constitution, to do so.
  • The President’s submitting the U.S. ratification instrument to the person designated in the treaty as the recipient of such instruments; for multilateral treaties that is usually the U.N. Secretary-General.
  • For at least multilateral treaties, the passing of a stipulated amount of time after submission of the ratification instrument before the treaty goes into force for the U.S.

For the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), these procedures took 17 to 19 years and five presidencies before the U.S. had ratified the treaty and it went into force for the U.S.

1. U.S. Participation in the Preparation of the Torture Convention.

As we have seen, the U.N.’s preparation of this treaty started in 1975 with its actual drafting by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights from 1978 through early 1984. During this nine-year period the U.S. was one of 53 members of that Commission and in that role participated in the treaty’s preparation.[1]

U.S. diplomats also were active participants in the drafting process with the objective of obtaining an effective treaty on the subject that the U.S. would be able to ratify. As President Reagan said, the U.S. “participated actively and effectively in the negotiation of the Convention.”[2]

Similarly U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz noted that the U.S. “contributed significantly to the development of the final Convention, especially in proposing that [it] focus on torture, rather than on other relatively less abhorrent practices.” In particular, the Secretary reported that the U.S. was a strong supporter for Article 7’s providing that if a State finds someone who committed torture in another country and does not extradite him to that country, the first State “shall . . . submit the case to its competent authorities for t he purpose of prosecution.” This use of the principle of universal jurisdiction was “to prevent a loophole that would create potential safe-havens for torturers.”[3]

An outside observer said, the U.S. “was one of the moving forces in the adoption of the Convention . . . [and] was involved at all stages of the drafting process,” and “the final version . . . is largely consistent with positions taken by [the U.S.] . . . during that process.”[4]

2. U.S. Signing the Torture Convention.

Although the Convention was available for signature by states immediately upon its unanimous approval by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1984, the U.S. did not sign the treaty until over three years later.

During those three-plus years the U.S. Departments of State and Justice were engaged in negotiating a package of reservations and other conditions for U.S. ratification of the treaty. State advocated rapid signature; Justice, caution. Those negotiations apparently were not concluded until April 1988. The Department of State during this period also had discussions with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff on the subject of conditions for ratification.[5]

On April 18, 1988, John C. Whitehead, Deputy Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration, signed the Convention at the U.N. Whitehead said at signing that the treaty would be sent to the Senate for advice and consent to ratification with proposed reservations, understanding and declarations to resolve ambiguities and safeguard U.S. interests.[6]

3. U.S. President’s Submission of the Torture Convention to the U.S. Senate.

The next month, May 1988, the Reagan Administration submitted the treaty to the U.S. Senate for its advice and consent to ratification. President Reagan’s accompanying message said that U.S. ratification “will clearly express [U.S.] opposition to torture.”[7]

The accompanying letter from Secretary of State George Schultz said that the Administration would submit proposed legislation to implement the treaty. Such legislation, he said, was “needed only to establish [the Convention’s] Article 5(1)(b) jurisdiction over offenses committed by U.S. nationals outside the [U.S.] and to establish Article 5(2) jurisdiction over foreign offenders committing torture abroad who are later found in territory under U.S. jurisdiction.”[8]

With the treaty were the Administration’s proposed reservations, understandings and declarations for such Senate advice and consent.[9]

4. U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Approval of the Torture Convention.

The Reagan Administration’s proposed 19 reservations and other conditions for ratification were criticized by the American Bar Association, human rights groups and others. As a result, nothing happened in the Senate over this treaty during the final months of the Reagan presidency in 1988.[10]

Shortly after President George H.W. Bush took office in January 1989, he indicated that the Convention Against Torture had higher priority for ratification than any other human rights treaty. President Bush then consulted with critics of the prior Administration’s proposed conditions and subsequently submitted a substantially reduced and revised set of proposed reservations and other conditions for the Senate’s advice and consent.[11]

Finally in January 1990 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on the treaty. The Administration presented two witnesses: Abraham Soafer, Legal Advisor, Department of State, and Mark Richard, Deputy Attorney General, Criminal Division, Department of Justice. There also were five public witnesses, including Professor David Weissbrodt of the University of Minnesota Law School.[12]

On July 19, 1990, the Committee voted, 10 to 0 (all Democratic Senators), to recommend approval of the treaty by the entire Senate with three reservations, four understandings and two declarations. The nine Republican members of the Committee were not present for that vote due to other Senate business and later complained about the lack of notice of the Committee meeting while simultaneously expressing their support for ratification of the treaty.[13]

The August 30, 1990, Committee report on the treaty said the Convention was “a major step forward in the international community’s efforts to eliminate torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It “codifies international law as it has evolved . . . on the subject of torture and takes a comprehensive approach. . . .”  Its “strength . . .  lies in the obligation of States Parties to make torture a crime and to prosecute or extradite alleged torturers found in their territory.”[14]

5. U.S. Senate’s Approval of the Torture Convention.

On October 27, 1990, the Senate debated a resolution to approve the treaty. Democratic Senator Clairborne Pell of Rhode Island, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, introduced the resolution and offered four amendments that had been agreed to by the Republican minority members of the Committee headed by Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. These amendments were agreed to by the Senators present and voting. Thereafter a division of the Senate indicated that two-thirds of the Senators present and voting had voted in the affirmative for the resolution of ratification as amended.[15]

The resolution had the following two reservations:[16] (i) the U.S. considered itself bound by Article 16’s ban on “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” only insofar as the phrase means the cruel, unusual and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the U.S. Constitution; and (ii) pursuant to Article 30(2) of the treaty, the U.S. did not regard itself bound by Article 30(1) whereby states agreed to arbitrate any disputes about the treaty while reserving the U.S.’ right to agree to arbitrate a particular dispute.[17]

The resolution had five understandings.[18] The most significant one related to Article 1’s definition of “torture” with the U.S. actually providing the following different definition:

  •  “in order to constitute torture, an act must be specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering and that mental pain or suffering refers to prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from (1) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering; (2) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality; (3) the threat of imminent death; (4) or the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality.”[19]

The resolution also had two declarations.[20] The first stated that CAT was not self-executing, i.e., the treaty was not enforceable in U.S. courts unless there was implementing federal legislation. The second stated that the U.S. recognized the competence of the Committee Against Torture to receive and consider claims by another state that the subject state is not complying with the treaty only if the complaining state had made a similar declaration.

Finally the resolution had a “proviso” that the U.S. President shall notify all present and prospective ratifying parties to the Convention, prior to depositing the instrument of ratification, that the treaty did not require or authorize U.S. legislation or other action prohibited by the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. This proviso prompted the most discussion during the Senate debate. It was insisted upon by Senator Helms, who called it the “Sovereignty Amendment.” Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York criticized the proviso after pointing out that the U.S. had included similar language in its ratification of the Genocide Convention, but as a reservation, and that various other countries objected to it because it made the U.S. obligations uncertain.[21]

6. U.S. Submission of Ratification Instrument to the U.N. Secretary-General.

As noted above, the Senate’s advice and consent is not the final step in the process of the U.S.’ becoming a party to a treaty. For a multilateral treaty like CAT, the President has to submit U.S. ratification to the U.N. Secretary General.

That did not happen during the George H.W. Bush Administration. The first President Bush said the U.S. could not do so until the U.S. had adopted “implementing legislation” that his Administration had proposed to put torturers “in the same international ‘extradite or prosecute’ regime we have for terrorists.” That legislation, however, was not adopted during that Administration.[22]

In the next Congress, however, such implementing legislation was introduced and enacted into law on April 30, 1994. This legislation added 18 U.S.C. §§ 2340, 230A, which made it a crime for a U.S. national or foreigner present in the U.S. to have committed torture outside the U.S.[23] There is no similar federal criminal law for committing torture within the U.S.; the U.S. has deemed such a law to be unnecessary as such acts would be covered by existing state and federal criminal laws.[24]

In accordance with the previously described “proviso” in the Senate’s approval of the treaty, on June 2, 1994, the Clinton Administration submitted a letter to the Secretary-General giving notice to all present and prospective ratifying Parties to the Convention to the effect that: “… nothing in this Convention requires or authorizes legislation, or other action, by the United States of America prohibited by the Constitution of the United States as interpreted by the United States.”[25]

The actual U.S. deposit of its instrument of ratification of CAT happened on October 21, 1994, and the treaty went into force for the U.S. on November 20, 1994.[26] Four European states filed objections to some of the U.S. reservations and understandings to its ratification of the treaty.[27]

Conclusion

The seven to nine years it took for the U.N. to develop and approve CAT and the additional 10 years it took for the U.S. to ratify the treaty demonstrate the difficulties of achieving such a treaty, the multitude of opinions and different countries and groups that are involved and the importance of patience and persistence in the development of multilateral human rights treaties. Also significant in light of recent political developments in the U.S., there was consistent, persistent and bipartisan support in the U.S., during the period, 1975 through 1994, for policies to combat, outlaw and punish torture perpetrators.


[1] Post: The Multilateral Treaty Against Torture (Nov. 29, 2011); U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Commission on Human Rights, http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/chr/membership.htm.

[2] U.S. Senate, Message from the President of the United States Transmitting the Convention Against Torture, 100th Cong., 2d Sess. (S. Treaty Doc. 100-20 May 23, 1988)(containing President Ronald Reagan, Message to the Senate Transmitting the Convention Against Torture and Inhuman Treatment or Punishment (May 20, 1988) [Reagan letter] and letter, Secretary of State Schultz to President Reagan (May 10, 1988)[Schultz letter]); U.S. Senate Comm. on Foreign Relations, Report on Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Exec. Rep. 101-30 (101st Cong., 2d Sess. Aug. 30, 1990)[“Senate Comm. Report”]; Senate Debate on Approval of the Convention, 136 Cong. Rec. S17486-92 (101st Cong., 2d Sess. Oct. 27, 1990)(comments by Senator Pell); Weissbrodt, et al., Prospects for U.S. Ratification of the Convention Against Torture, 83 ASIL Proc 529 (1989)(comments by co-author Paul Hoffman)[“Prospects“].

[3] Id.

[4]  Id.

[5] Prospects (co-author James S. Reynolds discussed his involvement in the State-Justice negotiations; co-author Robert E. Dalton discussed his participation in the State-Senate Committee discussions).

[6] Reuters, U.S. Signs a U.N. Document That Seeks an End to Torture, N.Y. Times (April 19, 1988); U.S. Senate, Message from the President of the United States Transmitting the Convention Against Torture, 100th Conf., 2d Sess. (S. Treaty Doc. 100-20 May 23, 1988)[containing U.S. Statement Upon Signing Convention].

[7] Reagan letter.

[8]  Schultz letter.

[9]  Id.

[10] Weissbrodt at 140-41; 136 Cong. Rec. S17486-92 (101st Cong., 2d Sess. Oct. 27, 1990) (comments by Senator Pell).

[11] Id.; Senate Comm. Report.

[12] U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Comm., Hearings on Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (101st Cong., 2d Sess. Jan. 30, 1990).

[13] Senate Comm. Report.

[14] Id.; 136 Cong. Rec. S17486-92 (101st Cong., 2d Sess. Oct. 27, 1990).

[15] Id.

[16]  The term “reservation” in international law means “the formal declaration by a State, when signing, ratifying, or adhering to a treaty, which modifies or limits the substantive effect of one or more of the treaty provisions as between the reserving Sate and other States party to the treaty.” (14 M. Whitehead, Digest of International Law, § 7, at 137-38 (1970)[“Whitehead”].)  International law has substantial limitations on a state’s use of reservations to a treaty. (Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, arts. 19-23.)  See Weissbrodt at 128-32.

[17] Id.; U.S. Senate, Reservations, Understandings and Declarations to U.S. Accession to CAT, 136 Cong. Rec. S17486-92 (Daily ed. Oct. 27, 1990).

[18]  The term “understanding” in international law usually means “a statement when it is not intended to modify of limit any of the provisions of the treaty in its international operation but is intended merely to clarify or explain or deal with some matter incidental to the operation of the treaty in a manner other than as a substantive reservation.” (Whitehead.) Merely calling something an “understanding,” however, does not make it so; if such a statement would exclude or vary the legal effect of any of a treaty’s provisions it would be a reservation subject to challenge. Indeed, Joan Fitzpatrick, a noted law professor, called the then proposed “understandings” with different definitions of “torture” and “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” as de facto and improper reservations. (Prospects (comments by co-author Fitzpatrick).)

[19] See n.17 supra.

[20] In international law the term “declaration” means a statement by the ratifying state “when it is considered essential or desirable to give notice of certain matters of policy or principle, without an  intention of derogating from the substantive rights or obligations [of the treaty].” (Whitehead.)

[21] 136 Cong. Rec. S17486-92 (101st Cong., 2d Sess. Oct. 27, 1990).

[22]  George Bush Presidential Library & Museum, Statement on Signing the Torture Victims Protection Act of 1991 (March 12, 1992). The Administration had proposed legislation to implement the Convention by making it a crime for a U.S. national or a foreigner present in the U.S. to have committed torture outside the U.S. It passed the House of Representatives in October 1992, but it did not pass the Senate in this Congress. (1992 H.R. 6017; ProQuestCongressional, Bill Tracking Report, 1992 H.R. 6017.)

[23] Pub. L. 103-236, §506(a), 103rd Cong., 2d Sess. (April 30, 1994).

[24] Schultz letter. U.S. federal law does make it a crime to commit certain acts with “intent to torture” in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the U.S. (18 U.S.C. § 114); to commit “genocide” by “torture” or other means (18 U.S.C. § 1001);to commit “murder”  in various ways, including through  “a pattern or practice of . . . torture against a child or children” (18 U.S.C. § 1111); and to commit “war crimes,”  one of which is “torture” (18 U.S.C. § 2441).

[26]  See n.1 supra.

[27] See n.24 supra. Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden objected to the U.S. reservation regarding “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” as being incompatible with the objects and purpose of the treaty. Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden also stated that the U.S. understandings did not affect U.S. obligations under the treaty. (Id.)

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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