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Once again, Washington’s single-minded protection of its freedom of action is raising eyebrows and jeopardizing international law. This time, concern about visits to U.S. civilian and military prisons has led the United States to block a United Nations vote on a plan to enforce a convention on torture. The move allies the U.S. with states that want to avoid any scrutiny of their human rights practices. Even American commentators say it is a shameful and shortsighted decision.

The vote itself concerned an optional protocol to an international convention against torture that was passed 13 years ago and has been ratified by about 130 countries, including the U.S. Countries are supposed to enforce the convention on their own, but human rights groups argue that is not working. They want “to establish a system of regular visits undertaken by independent and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty, in order to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment.” European and Latin American governments support the protocol.

The U.S. opposes the proposal on two grounds. It claims the protocol violates state rights. Second, there is concern that it would open American military prisons to outside inspection, in particular the suspects captured in the war against terrorism. Conservative governments share the U.S. reluctance to submit themselves to outside scrutiny.

The U.S. arguments should be dismissed. A national government can always bind its component parts; otherwise, the government could never honor international commitments. Second, the inspections are to ensure that torture does not take place. The U.S. has signed the treaty and has committed to enforcing it; there can be no exemptions for the war on terror. The suspicion that the U.S. move is designed to shield it from scrutiny raises a critical question: What is the U.S. fighting to protect?

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