U.N. Convention Against Torture (CAT): Overview and Application to Interrogation Techniques


Publication Date: January 2009

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Human rights



The United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) requires signatory parties to take measures to end torture within their territorial jurisdiction and to criminalize all acts of torture. Unlike many other international agreements and declarations prohibiting torture, CAT provides a general definition of the term. CAT generally defines torture as the infliction of severe physical and/or mental suffering committed under the color of law. CAT allows for no circumstances or emergencies where torture could be permitted.

The United States ratified CAT, subject to certain declarations, reservations, and understandings, including that the Convention was not self-executing and therefore required domestic implementing legislation to be enforced by U.S. courts. In order to ensure U.S. compliance with CAT obligations to criminalize all acts of torture, the United States enacted sections 2340 and 2340A of the United States Criminal Code, which prohibit torture occurring outside the United States (torture occurring inside the United States was already prohibited under several federal and state statutes of general application prohibiting acts such as assault, battery, and murder). The applicability and scope of these statutes were the subject of widely-reported memorandums by the Department of Defense and Department of Justice in 2002. In late 2004, the Department of Justice released a memorandum superseding its earlier memo and modifying some of its conclusions.

Assuming for the purposes of discussion that a U.S. body had to review a harsh interrogation method to determine whether it constituted torture under either CAT or applicable U.S. law, it might examine international jurisprudence as to whether certain interrogation methods constituted torture. Although these decisions are not binding precedent for the United States, they may inform deliberations here.

Congress recently approved additional guidelines concerning the treatment of detainees. The Department of Defense, Emergency Supplemental Appropriations to Address Hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, and Pandemic Influenza Act, 2006 (P.L. 109-148), and the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2006 (P.L. 109-163) contain identical provisions that prohibit the "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment of persons under the detention, custody, or control of the United States Government." These provisions, added to the defense appropriations and authorization bills via amendments introduced by Senator John McCain, are discussed briefly in this report and in greater detail in CRS Report RS22312, Interrogation of Detainees: Overview of the McCain Amendment, by Michael John Garcia.