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HUMAN RIGHTS PRESS CONFERENCE ON REQUESTED VISITS TO DETENTION CENTRES

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

27 October 2004

(Issued on 28 October 2004.)

Theo van Boven, Commission on Human Rights Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, held a Headquarters press conference this afternoon that the United States had announced earlier today that it would invite four special rapporteurs of the Commission to meet in Washington, D.C., to discuss their request to visit detention centres in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Guantanamo Bay military base, and elsewhere.

He said the United States invitation came in response to a joint statement made in June 2004 by the special rapporteurs requesting permission to visit those places. The four concerned were the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, the Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health, and himself.

Mr. van Boven noted that one consequence of the global fight against terrorism had been an erosion of the prohibition against torture. “Now we see moves to justify torture in certain situations or narrow the definition of torture”, he said. “People are being held indefinitely or held in clandestine locations.” He noted that torture under international law was absolutely prohibited in all circumstances.

Asked to what extent the United States may have used torture against prisoners in Iraq and suspected terrorists in custody elsewhere, Mr. van Boven replied that he did not have first-hand information and relied on reports by the media and by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). However, he cautioned, “There are still clandestine detention centres where there is no monitoring or control.” “That gives reason to fear what is happening there.”

There was also the question of counter-terrorism measures invoked to transfer people from one country to another for interrogation where they may be subject to torture. In a number of cases, he said, “diplomatic assurances” that the receiving government would comply with basic rules guaranteeing that someone would not be subject to torture had not been respected.

Asked by a correspondent whether he supported Amnesty International’s call for an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the detention policies adopted by the United States in its "war on terror", Mr. van Boven said such an investigation was absolutely necessary and should involve the Special Rapporteur on torture. “Whenever there are serious allegations of torture, investigations are absolutely necessary”, he said. “And the results of these investigations should be public because it’s absolutely a public affair.”

Mr. van Boven repeatedly stressed his dependence on NGOs for information about abuses, which his office then attempted to pursue with the governments concerned. However, he said, with only “one-and-a-half” staff members, there were not enough resources for effective follow-up. There was a contradiction at the United Nations, where human rights was considered an “extremely important issue”, and yet was not provided with the necessary resources. He estimated the current allocation for human rights-related activities at 1 to 2 per cent of the total budget.

Also, while he did not have enforcement powers per se, his reports could be influential. He noted that, for example, following his report on Uzbekistan, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development concluded that it could no longer invest in the country due to human rights concerns, among other considerations.

Announcing his resignation today, effective at the end of the month, Mr. van Boven said he hoped his successor would be able to undertake a long-planned mission to China, which was postponed recently by the Government.

He also noted that torture was rampant in other areas that tended to draw less attention, such as when the victims were women and children, people of certain sexual orientation, or marginalized people.

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