Obscured by 'Willful Blindness': States' Preventive Obligations and the Meaning of Acquiescence Under the Convention Against Torture
88 Pages Posted: 10 Feb 2021 Last revised: 8 Mar 2021
Date Written: November 22, 2020
As U.S. asylum law becomes more restrictive, relief under the U.N. Convention Against Torture (CAT) has become the last hope for safety for many asylum seekers. But for those who face torture at the hands of non-State actors, CAT relief has proven extraordinarily hard to win. The CAT’s torture definition encompasses privately-inflicted harm only when it occurs with the consent or acquiescence of a public official. Agency decisions initially took this to mean that officials must willfully accept or tacitly approve the private party’s actions. Courts have rejected that approach as overly restrictive. But what they have adopted in its place—a “willful blindness” test under which CAT applicants must show that officials would turn a blind eye to the torture they face—is also problematic. Under this standard, even where government officials take only half-hearted or patently inadequate steps to combat acts of privately-inflicted torture such as domestic violence, honor killings, gang violence, or mob attacks on LGBTQI people, courts frequently conclude that acquiescence has not been shown. As long as officials are doing something, the decisions reason, they are not willfully blind.
This Article argues that willful blindness should not be the test for acquiescence. The term “acquiescence” is defined in a Senate ratification understanding to require that a public official have awareness of the torturous activity and breach a legal responsibility to intervene to prevent it. This definition, which has been incorporated into U.S. law, makes clear that when officials are aware of torturous activity—and in most cases there is no doubt that a country’s government is aware of widespread patterns of abuse—what matters is whether they breach their legal responsibility to take preventive action.
Drawing on previously overlooked aspects of the history of the CAT’s drafting and U.S. ratification, this Article argues that officials acquiesce to torture if they fail to meet their legal responsibility under international law to take effective preventive measures. The State’s responsibility to exercise “due diligence” to prevent, investigate, prosecute, and punish acts of torture by non-State actors is widely recognized under the CAT and other human rights treaties. The U.N. Committee Against Torture has found that when States fail to exercise due diligence, they enable private parties to commit acts of torture with impunity, and thereby acquiesce. That approach accords with how the U.S., during the treaty negotiations, originally defined “acquiescence” when it proposed adding the term to the CAT’s torture definition. It also fits in comfortably with the text and purpose of the treaty and its U.S. ratification understandings.
The Article concludes by considering what a due diligence standard for acquiescence would look like in practice and addresses potential objections to its appropriateness and administrability. It also offers a proposal to amend the CAT regulations to clarify the acquiescence standard.
Keywords: Convention Against Torture, immigration law, refugee law, international law, treaties, State responsibility, non-State actors, willful blindness
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