By Kelleen Corrigan and Lia Lindsey
Last month the Committee against Torture (“Committee”) reviewed the United States’ compliance with its obligations under the Convention against Torture (“Convention”). Over the course of three days in Geneva, the Committee consulted with key stakeholders—including affected individuals, civil society representatives, and the U.S. government delegation—to gain insight into the United States’ adherence to its responsibilities under the Convention. The Committee raised many issues of concern, including police brutality, applicability of the Convention to individuals at Guantanamo Bay and other detention sites, and prison conditions, as well as asylum procedures and the detention of immigrants.
As co-chairs of the Immigration Detention and Deportation Working Group with the U.S. Human Rights Network Convention against Torture Taskforce, we attended the sessions in Geneva to ensure the Committee was fully briefed on the intersection of Convention obligations and treatment of immigrants in the United States. Prior to the review, our working group coordinated a joint shadow report. The report, submitted to the Committee and the U.S. government, provided significant background information and case examples, as well as recommendations and questions for the Committee to pose to the U.S. delegates.
Our working group also delivered an oral statement to the Committee highlighting the most distressing abuses, specifically the increased reliance on expedited removal procedures which may result in refoulement and other rights violations; the lack of codified and binding regulations for detention facilities; serious conditions issues and abuse in detention; as well as concerns about the general overuse of detention and the lack of utilization of community-based alternatives. We also provided additional information and examples to members of the Committee during subsequent informal gatherings.
The Concluding Observations released on November 28, two weeks after the review, reflect the Committee’s awareness and concerns about the serious shortcomings of the United States in regards to its treatment of non-citizens. In the Concluding Observations, the Committee generally categorized its main concerns about issues affecting non-citizens into two areas: (1) the use of expedited removal procedures and other summary processes; and (2) immigration detention.
Regarding expedited processes, the members addressed apprehension about the United States’ treatment of non-citizens along the southern U.S. border. The Committee noted increasing reports that Customs and Border Protection personnel are not identifying or referring immigrants for asylum screening interviews as required.
As a result of inadequate screening and expedited removal processes, some asylum seekers are returned to their country of origin without access to asylum procedures. Thus, the Committee took a critical eye to the potential of non-refoulment and made recommendations in line with assuring international protection. These included that the United States should “review the use of expedited removals,” “guarantee access to attorneys,” and to increase its risk assessment particularly regarding individuals from Mexico and northern Central America.
Moreover, the Committee was troubled by the recent move of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to restrict the standard for determining “credible fear” of asylum seekers. The Committee stated that the United States should ensure that the standard be returned to “its original, less restrictive application for all individuals expressing a fear of return.”
The Committee expressed specific concern about the treatment of children and families, in light of the recently-publicized increase in the numbers of Central American and Mexican children and families fleeing to the United States. In its Concluding Observations, the Committee recommended that the United States expand foster care for unaccompanied minors and halt family detention.
The Committee also focused on issues related to the detention of non-citizens in the United States. Committee members cited mandatory detention of non-citizens in jails and other prison-like facilities, including those operated by private companies, as problematic under the Convention. Members suggested that the United States review its mandatory detention policies, and expressed concern about detention of certain populations such as juveniles, families, and asylum seekers. The Committee addressed its overall concerns about treatment of detained non-citizens by advising the United States to fully implement the non-binding 2011 Performance-Based Detention Standards in all detention facilities without exception.
In addition to general detention conditions problems, the Committee noted specific concerns about the use of prolonged isolation and the pervasiveness of complaints about sexual abuse and violence in detention facilities. Regarding solitary confinement, the Committee encouraged the United States to comply with the 2013 directive on isolation, restricting its use to only when necessary and providing some procedural safeguards for immigrants with special vulnerabilities. Noting widespread incidents of sexual violence in detention facilities, the Committee stated that all facilities should be required to comply with Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) regulations.
Finally, the Committee recognized that in the absence of independent and effective oversight, policies and practice may not always align. It advised that the United States establish such a mechanism to ensure “prompt, impartial and effective investigations of allegations of violence and abuse” in these detention facilities.
We commend the Committee for identifying concerns and offering recommendations for the United States to improve its adherence to the Convention against Torture. Many of the recommendations reflect issues that civil society actors have raised with the United States for years, and brought to the attention of the Committee in Geneva. Now that the Committee has provided the U.S. government with a blueprint for better honoring the rights of all people—including non-citizens—to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, we are hopeful that the United States will engage in more meaningful compliance with these international obligations. This process requires active encouragement and engagement. We will continue coordinating with key stakeholders through the U.S. Human Rights Network Convention against Torture Taskforce to work toward securing these improvements for non-citizens in the United States. To learn how you can get involved in ending the torture of immigrants, please visit the CAT Taskforce website.