Press Conference by United Nations Rapporteur on Torture

20 October 2009

Press Conference by United Nations Rapporteur on Torture

20 october 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



The time had come to adopt a United Nations convention on rights of detainees, Manfred Nowak, Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, told correspondents at Headquarters today.  “In so many countries”, he said, “States are not living up to their obligations to respect the basic dignity of human beings in detention.”

Mr. Nowak was speaking at a press conference following the presentation of his fifth annual report (document A/64/215) to the General Assembly’s Third Committee (see Press Release GA/SHC/3955).  In each of his reports, Mr. Nowak said, he had focused on different aspects of torture in various contexts.

This time, however, he focused on abusive conditions of detention in general, on the “forgotten prisoners”, whether they were accused persons in pre-trial detention, convicted prisoners, aliens awaiting deportation or minors locked up for various reasons.

Unacceptable detention conditions occurred not only in developing countries, but also in the industrialized ones, in the cases, for example, of illegal immigrants awaiting hearings.  The same walls that kept prisoners inside could also keep societal scrutiny out, he noted.

He believed, in fact, that a majority of the 10 million persons deprived of liberty worldwide were living in unacceptable conditions.  In many countries, in fact, the authorities did not even feel responsible to provide food, shifting that responsibility to families.

In those situations, he said, the poorest and those without families were at the bottom of the prison hierarchy, having to provide services to others in exchange for food.  Saying health and sanitary services were often non-existent, he described appalling conditions in which wounds were untreated and human waste was either lived in or collected in plastic containers.

Children of shockingly low ages were often found in pre-trial detention, and were the most vulnerable to corporal punishment, inter-prisoner violence and sexual abuse, he said, stressing that children should be detained only as a last resort and only for the shortest possible periods.

Asked about the United States detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, he said he was still extremely encouraged by President Barack Obama’s executive orders towards closing the facility in the first days of his administration, even though there were serious problems in finding countries to place the detainees, and it was doubtful that the January deadline could be met.

He was, therefore, calling on other countries to accept the detainees, who must not be forced to return to countries of origin where they might be subject to abuse.  He was encouraged that there were certain European countries and others that were willing to take detainees, but there remained some 40 to 50 who had not been placed.

In regard to the Goldstone Report on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, he said that he was not involved in it, but was able to comment that the preventive detention of young boys described in it might defy human rights norms.  He voiced disappointment, however, that the Human Rights Council had not looked at possible abuses by both sides alleged in the Report.

Asked about the application of international human rights law in cases involving accused terrorists in the United States and other countries, he said that international treaties had strong legal status in a particular country when duly ratified by that country, and the United States Supreme Court, as well as the Obama Administration, had come a long way in seeing the situation in that light.

He maintained that much still needed to be done in that area, however, as shown by the lack of application of article 14 of the Convention against Torture regarding reparations to victims.  He said invoking the State Secrecy privilege to prevent litigation in those cases was wrong.

In reply to inquiries about the Arab world, he said there was widespread evidence of torture in many countries, but most of them had not invited him, despite numerous requests.  The exception was Jordan, where he did not find systematic torture, though he reported the use of torture in the intelligence and investigative services, including beatings and suspension for long periods by hands tied behind the back.  The worst prison, where there were regular heavy beatings, was closed on his recommendation, he said.  There were currently interviews being conducted with persons who had been kept in secret detention in quite a number of countries, but the ongoing investigation could not be discussed.

Asked about some of the worst prison conditions in his latest report, he recalled the unbearable conditions in the metal containers of Liberdad prison in Uruguay and the torture room in a detention centre in Lagos, Nigeria, where more than a hundred people, including women and children, were crammed together and tortured in front of each other.

In those instances, he said, the facilities were closed down after he brought the conditions to the attention of high officials, but, in other cases, such as that of bare concrete cells in Equatorial Guinea that lacked toilets and food, the Government completely rejected his report with the excuse that he spoke to the sole member of the opposition party in the legislature.

In Kazakhstan, he said he found three-year-old abandoned street children detained with teenagers accused of crimes, but he added that the country was not the worst offender in that area; often unaccompanied minors who had illegally entered developed countries were detained pending deportation.  He also affirmed that the mixing of pre-trial detainees and sentenced prisoners often occurred and was a violation of human rights law.

He said that Cuba had publicly invited him to visit at the Human Rights Council during its Universal Periodic Review.  Arrangements had not yet been agreed upon, but he was confident it would take place in 2010.  He had not been invited to Iran despite many requests; he had also received “quite a high number of credible allegations” of torture after the elections.  He communicated those to the Government, but had not yet gotten a response.

Finally, in regard to Sri Lanka, he said he had visited the country before this year’s final action against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and had found many allegations of torture against Tamils. He would not comment on allegations of abuses after the latest military action, but he said he regard them as serious.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.