For decades, Washington was the chief champion of human rights as a global norm with universal relevance.
But under the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. became a major delinquent. And this had disastrous demonstration effects on regimes only too willing to cloak their own abuses in the dismissive rhetoric used to rationalize the repugnant practices of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the like.
As the Obama administration settles in, the U.S. at long last has begun an anguished debate on acknowledging the litany of abuses, and settling scores with those who betrayed fundamental U.S. values and may have violated U.S. and international criminal laws.
The extent to which Bush's lawyers tried to accommodate the "dark side" of U.S. foreign policy is apparent from legal memos released by the U.S. Justice Department this month, which make for harrowing reading. They have generated widespread indignation.
In a globalized world with an internationalized human conscience, justice has a global domain. Where wrong has been done to fellow global citizens, and institutions and regimes in whose jurisdictions the crime was committed are unwilling or unable to bring perpetrators to justice, people want their own governments to reach onto the world stage to exact justice.
President George W. Bush himself tapped into these sentiments in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when he promised that whether the murderers came to justice, or justice came to them, justice would be done.
How fitting then that those who exploited the post-9/11 fear to take Bush down the wrong path, to violate fundamental American precepts and international laws against torture, must now themselves fear justice.
President Obama is right in wanting to move forward and not look back. But this cannot be done without some minimal public accounting, either domestic or international, for past criminal misdeeds. Obama is correct too in insisting that operatives who engaged in certain practices in the belief that they had been provided legal cover are not culpable.
But this merely draws attention to the moral and legal responsibility of those who provided that cover by twisting or violating U.S. and international laws. Failing to bring them to account, while magnanimous and prudential in intent, will not satisfy the instinct for justice.
If justice is not seen to be done, it could also pave the way for outsiders, especially Europeans, to launch their own criminal probes against leading U.S. officials.
When, after his 16-month arrest, General Augusto Pinochet was sent back from London to his native Chile, Geoffrey Robertson, a constitutional lawyer, was asked whether it was likely the general would spend any time behind bars. "No ... but a fate worse than prison awaits him. He will spend the rest of his days surrounded by lawyers" -- which is exactly what happened.
The Spanish judge who hounded, humiliated and ultimately humbled the Chilean dictator was Baltasar Garzón. He now has the Bush torture enablers in his cross-hairs. Although Spain does have separation of powers and the issue is unresolved, the Spanish government does not favour pursuing this case, and is vulnerable to powerful pressure that will continue to be exerted by Washington.
When Judge Garzón started the criminal proceedings against Pinochet in the mid-1990s, on the basis of a complaint filed by a human rights NGO, he was widely derided as a latter-day Don Quixote taking on a faraway general.
Yet "universal jurisdiction" gave him the legal capacity to bring to justice human rights violators anywhere in the world. That principle will continue to animate European human rights campaigners if no progress is made in bringing the torture enablers to justice in the U.S. While successful conviction remains rare, it does complicate the travel plans of those being watched by foreign prosecutors.
Pinochet was the first former head of state arrested abroad for crimes committed at home. The recent international arrest order for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir issued by the International Criminal Court made world headlines but also showed up a dangerous faultline in international politics. While westerners applauded his indictment, most developing countries have found the ICC's exclusive focus on Africa, at least to date, deeply troubling. This enabled Bashir to make almost a triumphal appearance at the Arab League summit in brazen defiance of the ICC arrest warrant.
The alternative to criminal prosecution is a truth and reconciliation commission along the lines of the successful South African example after apartheid. In arguing against a truth commission to investigate torture practices under Bush, Senator Arlen Specter said "this is not Latin America."
Well, in some ways it is. "Enhanced interrogation techniques" were originally exported by U.S. specialists to Latin American military regimes, including Pinochet's, in the 1960s-70s to help fight the enemy of the day -- communism. They were then applied at home to fight the new enemy of choice, terrorism.
Should there be no public accountability for possible crimes of torture authorized by senior U.S. officials in either domestic or international fora, there will be a doubly deleterious consequence.
Would-be torturers will know they can escape the consequences. And the embryonic institutions of international criminal justice such as the ICC will be compromised, perhaps fatally, as examples of judicial colonialism where only the Africans and the defeated can be prosecuted.
For the sake of the victims, to atone for the collective collapse of the nation's moral compass, to restore America's tarnished reputation and moral authority, and to reinforce the institutions of international criminal justice, the torture enablers must be prosecuted either domestically or internationally; or else there must be a credible truth commission with the power to pardon the penitent and punish the unrepentant.
Jorge Heine, a former ambassador of Chile to South Africa and India, is a professor of global governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, whose founding director is Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary general.
They are both distinguished fellows at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Ontario.