In response to the release of the Abu Ghraib photos, Dr. George Hunsiger, professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, convened a conference of American faith leaders to examine how religious communities could respond to the U.S. military’s use of torture against 9/11 detainees. One hundred and fifty leaders of the nation’s diverse faiths gathered in Princeton in January 2006 to discuss this critical issue. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) was launched during the conference with the mission of mobilizing people of faith to end torture in U.S. policy, practice and culture.
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Four areas of work
NRCAT works for an end to torture in four areas:
1. To ensure that U.S.-sponsored torture of detainees never happens again.
2. To end the use of torture in U.S. prisons and detention facilities, in particular the use of prolonged solitary confinement.
3. To end U.S. support (direct or indirect) of any country that engages in torture and to work for U.S. policies that help other nations stop their torture practices.
4. To end the bigotry and hatred that promotes the practice and acceptance of torture against religiously, ethnically and other targeted groups. Since the fall of 2010, NRCAT has worked for an end to anti-Muslim bigotry.
The following is a description of some of the past accomplishments and continuing tasks in each of the four areas:
1. Ending U.S.-sponsored torture of post-9/11 detainees forever
Since 9/11, the United States has engaged in torture of many detainees in order to obtain information. From its beginnings, NRCAT has played a significant role in working to stop that policy and to ensure that the country would never engage in torture again. It has achieved several major policy successes. For instance, throughout 2008 and into 2009, NRCAT joined with Evangelicals for Human Rights and the Center for Victims of Torture to generate support for an executive order to be issued by the President of the United States that would halt U.S.-sponsored torture. When President Obama came into office, he did issue an Executive Order halting torture on January 22, 2009 that adopted many of the coalition’s suggestions.
Similarly, NRCAT educated the religious community and others about an amendment that requires the military to videotape all of their interrogations. It passed in 2009.
To permanently end U.S.-sponsored torture of detainees, NRCAT is now working to:
- Secure an independent Commission of Inquiry that will investigate the torture policies and practices of the U.S. government since September 11, 2001 and make recommendations about safeguards that are needed to ensure that it will not happen again.
- Educate religious people and institutions about the elements of the Executive Order banning torture that should be codified into law.
- Increase the number of people in the U.S. who believe that torture is always wrong - without exceptions.
2. Ending torture in U.S. prisons, especially the use of prolonged solitary confinement
- Prisoners are usually confined alone in their 8' x10', often cage-like, windowless, and soundproof cell for 23 hours per day.
- The 24th hour is for “recreation” alone in a separate cage-like room. At no other time do prisoners have access to activity - what they endure is daily nothingness.
- Some prisoners have been held for months, even years, in complete isolation and suffer life-long consequences in their ability to function.
- The mentally ill, mentally retarded, and learning-disabled are often the prisoners who end up in extended isolation, since these populations tend to have the greatest difficulty following prison rules. Once in solitary, they are also the most susceptible to mental breakdowns and suicide.
NRCAT, with its partner the Maine Council of Churches, advocated in Maine during 2010 that the Department of Corrections reduce its population of prisoners held in prolonged solitary confinement. The new Commissioner of Corrections in 2011 has now reduced the solitary confinement population in Maine by more than 70%.
To end the use of prolonged solitary confinement of prisoners, NRCAT is engaged in an effort to:
- Tell the story of the significantly successful effort in Maine to faith communities in other states urging them to work for similar changes in their states.
- Urge people of faith across the nation to sign NRCAT’s statement calling for the end of solitary confinement. When 500 people of faith in any particular state sign the statement, the statement and the signatures will be sent to the governor, all members of the legislature and the commissioner of corrections in that state. Learn more at www.nrcat.org/prisons.
- Distribute the NRCAT-produced film, Solitary Confinement: Torture in Your Backyard (www.nrcat.org/backyard) on the experience in Maine that urges people of other states to work for similar changes in their states.
- Support religious organizations in nine states to develop campaigns similar to Maine. One of the states is California where religious leaders are working to end prolonged solitary confinement after the hunger strike in the summer of 2011 by prisoners protesting solitary confinement and other prison conditions.
3. Advocating for U.S. policies that help end the use of torture by other governments
Torture is practiced by governments in every region of the world. U.S. laws, policies and actions on torture have a profound impact – for better or worse – on the practices of foreign governments. The U.S. has had a positive influence on international efforts to prohibit torture, but has also condoned torture by foreign governments. It provides military assistance to certain foreign governments despite their use of torture, and has even provided direct support and training for foreign security forces that torture. The U.S.’s most recent foray into the use of torture as part of its anti-terrorist campaign has created a tremendous need for the U.S. to reaffirm its values by condemning the practice of torture and taking steps to stop it wherever it occurs. NRCAT has engaged in several important efforts in this area including producing videos of survivors talking about their experiences of torture in order to illustrate to people of faith that the U.S. government needs to encourage other countries to stop their torture practices. It has worked to urge President Obama to sign the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, which would help prevent torture in this country and around the world. Its work to support OPCAT has included an important video on the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and a statement on OPCAT (www.nrcat.org/opcat) that has been endorsed by 3,500 people of faith including sixty-six heads of faith groups and other senior religious. NRCAT is also engaged in an important effort to encourage the U.S. government to prepare a Torture Watch List and provide financial incentives to nations to stop their torture practices. With NRCAT’s leadership, a 2012 appropriations bill passed the Congress and was signed by the president that provided funds for nations that are working to end their torture practices.
To urge the United States government to use its assets and power to encourage other nations to stop their use of torture, NRCAT is currently:
- Promoting the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) through the “Preventing Torture Everywhere” campaign – urging the President to sign this treaty. NRCAT organized a delegation of 12 religious leaders to meet with leaders in the White House on December 13, 2011 to urge the President to sign OPCAT.
- Working with the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the State Department to create a Torture Watch List and to provide additional development assistance for foreign governments that take genuine steps to eliminate torture.
4. Ending anti-Muslim bigotry
On September 7, 2010, NRCAT and the Islamic Society of North America organized an event with 40 national religious leaders who stated that the exponentially growing reality of anti-Muslim bigotry, like the opposition to the building of new Mosques and the threat by the pastor in Florida to burn the Qur’an, was contrary to American values and religious values. Following the meeting, the religious leaders held a press conference that included 38 T.V. cameras and produced 200 press stories in one day. That fall “Shoulder-to-Shoulder: Standing with American Muslims; Upholding American Values” was created, in which NRCAT has played a major leadership role. It now has a membership of 28 national religious organizations. Shoulder-to-Shoulder held a major press conference the day Peter King held his hearings on the radicalization of Islam and on September 8, 2011 held another press conference that described the efforts by people faith across the country to end anti-Muslim bigotry.
To continue the efforts to end anti-Muslim bigotry, NRCAT is working to:
- Continue the partnership with Shoulder-to-Shoulder: Standing with American Muslims; Upholding American Values and grow its membership.
- Respond to events and acts that are marked by anti-Muslim bigotry.
- Support religious organizations across the nation that are engaged in ending anti-Muslim sentiment
NRCAT has 314 religious organizations as members. These include: evangelical Christians, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, mainline Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Bahá’ís, and Buddhists. Member organizations include national denominational and faith group bodies, regional entities such as state ecumenical agencies, and local religious organizations and congregations. NRCAT has mobilized the religious community well at each of those levels.
NRCAT incorporated in March 2007 in the District of Columbia and was granted 501(c) (3) status by the IRS in June 2007. On May 7, 2007, NRCAT asked the Rev. Richard Killmer to become its executive director. A thirteen-member Board of Directors is responsible for its work.
Over 63,000 people of faith have endorsed one or more of NRCAT’s statements or participated in one or more of its activities. NRCAT sends information about current NRCAT programs, developments in Congress, and study materials, worship materials and other programs that can be used by congregations to work to end torture. In addition, NRCAT has state partners which are organizations in 19 states that implement many of NRCAT’s programs at the state and local level.
It has had many programmatic successes including its Banner Project in 2008 in which 350 congregations during that year hung banners on the exterior walls on their building and the production of three videos on U.S.-sponsored torture.
NRCAT has had extraordinary success in generating press stories. Rabinowitz/Dorf is its public relations firm. NRCAT had 531 news and other stories in 2011 compared to 442 in 2010.