UN rights chief: ‘war on terror’ is violating ban on torture

Arabic News.com, 8 December 2005

The absolute ban on torture, a cornerstone of international human rights, is becoming a casualty of the so-called “war on terror” through loosened legal definition, secret detention, handover of prisoners without adequate safeguards and other practices, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said yesterday.

“Pursuing security objectives at all costs may create a world in which we are neither safe nor free,” Louise Arbour told news correspondents at United Nations headquarters in New York in the run-up to Human Rights Day, observed on 10 December. “This will certainly be the case if the only choice is between the terrorists and the torturers.

“Governments are watering down the definition of torture, claiming that terrorism means established rules do not apply anymore,” Ms. Arbour continued.

She called on all Governments to reaffirm their commitment to the absolute prohibition of torture by condemning torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and prohibiting it in national law.

US Ambassador John Bolton criticized Arbour for speaking out about alleged US mistreatment of imprisoned suspected terrorists. Bolton, instead of addressing the Arbour concerns, accused Arbour of not focusing attention on major human-rights abusers such as Cuba, Burma and Zimbabwe.

Bolton said yesterday that it was “disappointing that (Arbour) has chosen to talk about press commentary about alleged American misconduct … It is inappropriate and illegitimate for an international civil servant to second-guess the conduct that we’re engaged in in the war on terror with nothing more as evidence than what she reads in the newspapers.”

Arbour said the right and duty of governments to protect their citizens from attacks is not in dispute. Governments may even impose limitations on certain rights at times of imminent or clear dangers. But, she added, the right to be free from torture may not be subject to any limitation, anywhere, under any condition.

She singled out two practices as having a particularly corrosive effect: the recourse to so-called “diplomatic assurances,” and the holding of prisoners in secret detention. “The former may make countries complicit with torture carried out by others, while the latter creates the conditions for torture by one's own,” she said.

Holding people in secret detention amounts to “disappearance,” which itself amounts to torture or ill-treatment, she said. In addition, prolonged incommunicado detention or detention in secret places facilitates the perpetration of torture.

Responding to questions concerning allegations that the United States has been keeping people in such detention in various parts of the world, she said that, not knowing the facts, she could not play the judge. Her role was to make sure that the norms against torture hold, laws are being applied and, most importantly that both the norms and the actual activities are open to the light of day.

“I don’t think it's appropriate for those who purport to act in our names, to ask for a blank check—just trust us, there are very bad things happening out there, we’ll handle it and the less you know the better. I think that's completely inappropriate in democratic societies,” she said.

“The law provides the proper balancing between the legitimate security interests of the State with the individual's own legitimate interests in liberty and personal security. It must do so rationally and dispassionately, even in the face of terror,” she added.