Bush The US’s image abroad will never be the same. A country that has long trumpeted the need for human rights and the rule of law is now well and truly hoist on its own petard

It is John McCain, a former Vietnam warrior and the Republican candidate for president when Barack Obama first won the presidency, who has conducted a long campaign against the US using torture. Last week, when the US Senate’s study of the torture used during the administration of George W Bush was published, he was one of the very few voices of the right to welcome it.

When the allies won the Second World War, the torture of the Nazi regime’s top military commanders was not allowed, even though the detained had plenty of information on who did what. Few argued that torture was necessary to elicit the information required in order to prosecute the Nazi leadership at the Nuremberg war crimes trial (although Churchill had argued earlier that they did not deserve a trial and they should be put against a wall and summarily shot). It was conventional interrogation that produced the information needed.

In the Senate report, which runs to 6,000 pages (compare this with my last book which was 360 pages, usual in the publishing industry), there are any number of sadistic acts of torture recorded. And, says the report, no information elicited outclassed the same information squeezed from the same subjects by conventional interrogation. Indeed, FBI officials were long critical of the CIA’s brutal approach to interrogation.

The US’s image abroad will never be the same. A country that has long trumpeted the need for human rights and the rule of law is now well and truly hoist on its own petard. It should not dare any longer to make its clarion calls for the values of democracy. Its only hope for redemption is to keep its head down and turn inward on righting its human rights abuses at home: the shooting of innocents by the police, the unnecessary and long incarceration of young black men for minor offences, the use of capital punishment, sometimes killing men later proved innocent and, not least, a 35-year-long prison term for soldier Chelsea Manning, who revealed secret government diplomatic cable traffic.

Everyone who knows the awful history of the torture drama will have their own bone to pick. Mine is the speech given by Bush to the UN General Assembly on Human Rights Day when he called for tougher application of human rights the world over just at the time his subordinates, with his authority and knowledge, were waterboarding suspects (simulated drowning), depriving them of sleep for well over 100 hours whilst suspended from the ceiling, feeding rectally, throwing them against walls and kicking them almost to the point of death.

Obama stopped the use of torture immediately after he came into office. Yet he and the Department of Justice will not prosecute those who did it and those who authorised it. Unfortunately, the US has not signed up as a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and so cannot be prosecuted there, except by order of the UN Security Council where it has a veto. But the ICC could exercise its jurisdiction in Afghanistan, which is a signatory and where US torture occurred. Failing that, there is the UN Torture Convention to which the US is a state party. In fact, its ratification was carried out at the behest of the very conservative president, Ronald Reagan.

Under the rules of the 1984 Convention, any individual (from Bush downwards) who travels to a country that is a signatory of the Convention could be arrested, detained, tried and sentenced. When, in 1998, the former Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, was visiting London, he was arrested by the UK police who were responding to a request by Spanish judges investigating allegations of torture during his rule. The case went to the highest court in the UK where it was ruled that even though he had been head of state he did not have sovereign immunity under the law of the Anti-Torture Convention. I wonder how many European countries will have the courage to do this today with Bush and his officials. I wonder if the countries of the Middle East, Asia and Latin America will. Perhaps an African country might since many Africans feel Africa has been picked upon by the ICC. This would be sweet revenge.

Unless arrests and trials are carried out, US practitioners of torture and those in authority over them will go on denying they broke the law. It is time for the world’s courts to take over the US Senate’s good and exhaustive work. As Senator McCain said on television the other day, we should recall that at the end of World War II the US executed those Japanese who had tortured captured US troops with waterboarding. The greatest human rights abuses ever carried out by a western country in modern times cannot go unpunished.

The writer has been a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune for 20 years and author of the much acclaimed new book, Conundrums of Humanity — the Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Age. He may be contacted at [email protected]