To: United Nations Committee Against Torture
From: Human Rights Watch, May 1998
Re: Israel's second periodic report to the Committee against Torture
Human Rights Watch has previously noted with appreciation the efforts of the Committee against Torture to ensure that Israel honor its obligations under the Convention against Torture, including the Committee's identification of a range of interrogation methods used by Israel which are both violations of article 16 and constitute torture as defined by article 1 of the Convention. Despite the Committee's repeated recommendations of concrete steps Israel should take to bring its law and practice into compliance, Israel has consistently disregarded these recommendations and continues to use torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment during interrogations of Palestinian detainees. The magnitude of Israel's violations of the Convention Against Torture is well known to the Committee, having been extensively documented by U.N. bodies and international, Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations.
It is Human Rights Watch's view that Israel's second periodic report to the Committee (CAT/C/33/Add.3) fails to satisfactorily address the serious issues raised by the Committee in its previous sessions. In particular, we strongly object to Israel's characterization of its law, in this report and in earlier reports and statements, as prohibiting the use of methods of interrogation inconsistent with the Convention, and providing effective oversight of detention and interrogation practices. In this context, Human Rights Watch wishes to draw the attention of the Committee to pending legislation and court rulings we believe could greatly expand the extent and severity of Israel's use of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
In contrast to the Committee's recommendation that Israel cease using interrogation methods in conflict with the Convention, incorporate provisions of the Convention in domestic law, and publish its "Landau rules" interrogation procedures, Israel is currently considering legislation that would give legal cover to secret interrogation procedures, including those already identified by the Committee as being in violation of the Convention. A recent draft of the General Security Services(GSS) Law allows the adoption of secret guidelines for interrogation, and grants GSS employees immunity from criminal liability if they are acting "in good faith and in a reasonable manner in the course of carrying out their duties." The bill also makes it a criminal offense for any member of the GSS or its Knesset oversight committee to disclose information without authorization. If enacted, this bill would provide a legal basis for the GSS's use of "a moderate measure of physical pressure" during interrogations — including practices already recognized by the Convention as constituting violations of article 16 and amounting to torture as defined in article 1. It would also enshrine the doctrine of secrecy promoted by the 1987 Landau Commission Report, shielding abusers from responsibility for their actions and punishing whistle blowers.
This trend toward expanding immunity from prosecution for abuses committed by the state is also evident in Israel's draft Law Concerning Handling of Suits Arising from Security Force Activities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. The law would severely limit the right of Palestinians to seek compensation for wrongful injury or death caused by Israeli soldiers. The legislation would disqualify most suits by unduly broadening the definition of "combatant activity" — situations for which no compensation could be sought — and by exempting from consideration injuries that are not serious and permanent. If enacted, this law would eviscerate what has been one of the few means of holding the Israeli army accountable for abuses: civil suits in Israeli courts.
Human Rights Watch is also deeply concerned that the Israeli High Court of Justice, meeting later this month to hear a series of petitions on the legal basis for various GSS interrogation methods, may issue a ruling legitimizing the use of many practices cited by the Committee in its May 1997 report as constituting torture. At least one of these practices, violent shaking, is known to have resulted in death. Previous High Court rulings on individual cases have permitted the use of these methods in interrogations, accepting arguments by the State Attorney's Office that these practices did not constitute torture and were in any case made necessary by urgent security concerns. Human Rights Watch fully supports the Committee's position that article 2 of the Convention prevents the invocation of exceptional circumstances as a justification of torture.
Finally, Human Rights Watch would also like to draw the Committee's attention to Israel's use of prolonged administrative detention and hostage-taking. Administrative detention is a procedure under which detainees are held without charge or trial, sometimes for years at a time. Although Israel recently released some of the longest held administrative detainees, including Ahmad Qattamesh, who was held for almost six years without charge, an estimated 150 individuals remain in custody. Israel admitted for the first time in 1997 that it used administrative detention to hold Lebanese nationals as hostages to secure the release of Israeli servicemen. The Israeli Supreme Court in November 1997 authorized the holding of the prisoners as bargaining chips, despite its acknowledgment that the detainees themselves pose no threat to state security, and on April 20, 1998 an Israeli court extended the detention order of 21 Lebanese administrative detainees for an additional six months. Some of the detainees have been held for up to 11 years, often in secret, incommunicado detention. Such lengthy detentions without charge or trial, and often in harsh conditions, constitute arbitrary detention and as such are a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is Human Rights Watch's belief that such practices often facilitate the use of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Human Rights Watch calls on the United Nations Committee Against Torture to:
- Study Israel's use of administrative detention and hostage-taking within its analysis of the Convention;
- Urge the government of Israel to:
- review all pending legislation to ensure that it complies with the Convention
- comply with all the recommendations presented by the Committee during its May 1997 session
- present another report on measures it has taken to give effect to their undertakings under the Convention, in accordance with article 19(1)