Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Torture

26 October 2010

Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Torture

26 October 2010
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Torture


The United Nations should consider developing a convention on the rights of detainees, Manfred Nowak, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, told correspondents today at a Headquarters press conference. 

In most countries, conditions in prisons and police custody, as well as psychiatric institutions and remand centres, amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment, Mr. Nowak said today after submitting his sixth and final report to the General Assembly’s Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) (See Press Release GA/SHC/3988).  He said that laws existed, but there was no binding treaty that spelled out the rights of detainees.  For instance, no law explicitly stated that a detainee should have the right for one hour a day to leave his cell to go outside to see the sun. 

Citing a host of troubling concerns, Mr. Nowak, whose tenure would end this week, said that many prisons today held three times as many detainees as they were designed to hold.  Moreover, torture was practiced in most countries of the world.  Of the 18 countries that had invited him to visit, Denmark was the only one in which he did he not find a case or allegation of torture that could be documented.  In the other 17 States, torture was found, sometimes in isolated cases.  He added that in Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, and Greece, which he visited this year, there were isolated cases of torture, but in many other countries, torture was more than routine.

He explained instances of widespread or systematic torture meant that such ill treatment was “a real Government practice”, as in Equatorial Guinea, or that no meaningful action was taken by a Government to curb it, as in Nepal, which he had visited in 2005 at the height of the conflict between the Government and the Maoists.  There had been systematic practice of torture by the police, the military and the Maoists.

Mr. Nowak said that the countries visited had been selected not necessarily because they carried a higher risk of torture but because he wanted to tour a representative sample of countries from all regions and with different legal systems, cultures, religions, etcetera.  The countries visited represented about one tenth of the United Nations membership.

A more discomforting finding had been the fact that although so many detainees in police custody reported being tortured during the first days of their confinement in order to extract confessions, that experience was nothing compared to their ordeal afterwards, with some being detained for many months or years under inhumane and degrading conditions.  That situation amounted to a global crisis of detention, he said, reiterating that in most countries, whether in the global North, South, East or West, prison and detention facilities were often overcrowded.

For example, he said that holding cells built to detain persons for 24 hours to 48 hours for first interrogation after arrest and before they were handed over to a judge, were being used for long-term detention.  Sometimes prisons were so overcrowded that authorities were unable to take in alleged offenders.  The most appalling conditions had been found Jamaica, with people held in crowded, dark, roach-infested cells for 24 hours a day.  They sometimes had to fight to find space to sleep on the concrete floor.  While such a situation might be tolerable for one night, it was not acceptable for up to five years, as had been found in Jamaica.

In Papua New Guinea, the situation was not much better, he continued.  People were found in police custody for up to one year.  In Greece, the situation was peculiar because that country was carrying the heavy burden of irregular migrants on the European Union.  In 2009, 60 per cent of all irregular migrants detained in the European Union were in Greece and that percentage had gone up to 90 per cent in the first eight months of 2010.  They were kept in inhuman conditions in small police border guard stations and special detention centres.  Often, they were released soon thereafter because they did not have enough capacity.

Mr. Nowak said that he had called on the Greek Government to do whatever it could to deal with the situation, which was a truly a European problem.  He had also called on all European Union member States to immediately suspend the implementation of the regulation that allowed all European States to send back persons who had requested asylum to the first country where they entered European Union territory.  Because of that regulation, so many people were sent back to Greece.  The Union needed to totally renegotiate that system, which was creating a very unfair burden on Greece.  It might also need to rethink the whole asylum and migration policy.

In response to a question on the case of a Cuban journalist who died in detention while on hunger strike, he said that he had received information on that situation.  Mr. Nowak had been expecting to visit Cuba in July but the Government did not find the date acceptable.  He had raised certain cases with the Government, he said, adding that his country missions were not just for fact-finding alone but also served to start cooperation with the Governments.  The case of the journalist would need to be looked at through an objective assessment of the situation.

On another question concerning the information published by Wikileaks on the activities of the United States in Iraq, he said that both he and his predecessor had made requests to the Bush Administration to visit the Guantanamo Bay detention facility but had received no response.  Subsequently, he had entered into dialogue with that Administration and, in October 2005, had been invited, but that invitation had come with restrictions, including that he could only visit for one night and could not interview detainees independently.

Since that amounted to nothing more than “a tour”, he had not gone, and had instead conducted the investigation by meeting with ex-detainees.  His report was published in 2006 and called for the closure of the facility.  When United States President Barack Obama came into power, he had promised to close the facility within one year.  Mr. Nowak believed that the President was committed to that promise but he was being blocked.  Moreover, European countries had not been willing to take ex-detainees.

In Jordan, he had met detainees who had been tortured, not only in United States custody but also under Iraqi detention, he added.  When he decided to go to

Iraq to investigate those claims, he had approached the British and United States authorities to also visit their own facilities.  The British had responded positively to the request even though they no longer had many facilities, but the United States denied the request.  Requests to visit the Guantanamo had been denied by both the Bush and Obama Administrations.

He said that the major difference between the two was that under President Obama, reports were no longer being received about torture and other violations such as rendition.  He pointed out that there was the obligation to independently investigate every allegation of torture but not much had been done in that regard by the United States Administration.  The two Administrations, using State secrecy laws, had blocked efforts by ex-detainees to seek legal redress.  He said that ex-detainees could seek redress by instituting civil litigations.  If the Administration did not invoke the secrecy act, they could obtain justice in regular courts.

The Guantanamo bay facility was illegal and the fact that people were kept there was a violation of international law, he said.  The biggest issue was that people were being kept without being told how long they would be there.  Some of the detainees should be brought to justice, but not in military courts.  They should be tried in regular courts, he said.

On reports that the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) planned to hand over five detainees to the Sudanese authorities, he stated that torture was practiced in Sudan but added that the issue of handing over detainees needed to be handled on a case by case basis.  Diplomatic assurance that detainees would not be tortured was not adequate as such assurances were not worth the paper they were written on.  The United Nations was bound by universal principles and his view was to strongly advise it not to hand over any detainees unless it was satisfied that the risk of torture did not exist.

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