Many countries still appear willing to use torture, warns UN human rights official

Van Boven briefs press

27 October 2004 – Torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment continue to be meted out by many States, often in the name of fighting terrorism, a United Nations human rights expert warns as he calls for a complete prohibition on the practice.

The warning came from Theo van Boven, Special Rapporteur on torture, as he presented his annual report to the General Assembly's social, humanitarian and cultural committee. The committee also heard reports by the Special Rapporteurs on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; the freedom of religion or belief; the right to food; and the human rights of migrants.

In his report, Mr. van Boven says the legal arguments proffered by countries to defend torture are never valid, regardless of whether there is "a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency."

Mr. van Boven also says some countries are trying to water down the definition of torture in the hope that some practices - including the deprivation of essential human needs, the issuing of death threats or suffocation with a wet cloth - can be considered permissible in exceptional circumstances.

"The condoning of torture is per se a violation of the prohibition of torture," he states in his report, adding that international law is unambiguous on the illegality of the behaviour. "Moreover, domestic law cannot be invoked as a justification for failure to comply with international treaty obligations and customary international law."

Mr. van Boven says he received numerous reports during the past year of nations attempting to avoid the ban on torture, especially during attempts to gain information from suspected terrorists. Their methods include holding the suspect in painful positions, depriving them of sleep or light for long periods, placing hoods over their heads, stripping them naked and threatening them with dogs. Some reports indicate the torture has been inflicted by private contractors.

In the report, the Rapporteur also voiced concern that:

  • Secret places of detention, where suspects are kept incommunicado for prolonged periods, are being maintained.
  • The national authorities of some States may deem evidence obtained under torture as admissible during judicial hearings.
  • Many countries appear willing to breach the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits returning someone to another State if there are substantial reasons for believing they may be tortured there.

Mr. van Boven says that, after a visit to Spain in October last year, he concluded that torture or ill-treatment is not systematic in that nation, but the system allows such practices to occur, especially with people detained for terrorist-related activities.

He also notes that several countries did not respond to his requests to make inspection visits, including the United States in the case of the detention facilities it runs in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.

Video of press briefing [25mins]

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