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PRESS CONFERENCE ON TORTURE BY HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

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

7 December 2005

Warning that the long-established absolute ban on torture was becoming a victim of the global “war on terror”, United Nations human rights chief Louise Arbour today called on world leaders to speak up openly and clearly about their Governments’ practices, duties and answerability.

Just ahead of Human Rights Day -- commemorated annually on 10 December -- Ms. Arbour, High Commissioner for Human Rights, called a press conference at the United Nations New York Headquarters to draw attention to the eroding support for legal and customary anti-torture norms in a climate where some Governments claimed that a “new normal”, which emerged post-September 11, 2001, justified a lowering of the bar as to what constituted the permissible treatment of detainees.

"Governments are watering down the definition of torture, claiming that terrorism means established rules do not apply anymore", Ms. Arbour said, singling out two practices as having a particularly corrosive effect on the global ban on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment: the holding of prisoners in secret detention, and the recourse to so-called "diplomatic assurances" to justify the return of suspects to countries where they might face a risk of torture.

The international anti-torture regime was not some nebulous notion of what constituted ill-treatment, Ms. Arbour said, stressing the clear condemnation of all forms of torture set out in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the 1984 Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and its optional protocol, which would, when it entered into force, allow for in-country inspections of places of detention.

So while some Governments contended that the increased frequency and intensity of terrorist attacks worldwide demanded that the very meaning of torture needed to be redefined, Ms. Arbour argued that an illegal interrogation technique remained illegal, whatever new description a Government might wish to give it.

“Pursuing security objectives at all costs may create a world in which we are neither safe nor free”, Ms. Arbour said, adding: “This will certainly be the case if the only choice is between the terrorists and the torturers.”

And since no credible case had been made for throwing away the progress that had been made in extending the rule of law and human rights around the world, Ms. Arbour called on Governments, including in North America and Europe, to launch a healthy debate on their policies on detention and on transporting or deporting terror suspects to countries where they faced the possible risk of torture, saying: "It is absolutely critical that we call on as much openness, transparency and accountability as possible as is compatible with robust, intelligent efforts to combat the extremely serious threats caused by modern terrorist activities.”

Responding to a series of questions on fallout from the United States-led war on terror and United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent visits to Europe to answer questions regarding alleged CIA-run secret prisons there, Ms. Arbour stressed that: "In a democratic society, we cannot be at the mercy of a debate in which we don't have enough information to counter assertions that are made, either on a normative or factual basis, that are based on information that is not widely available for a healthy public discourse."

She argued that detention in secret prisons, whether at home or abroad, without notification to family members or legal assistance, was a form of torture or inhumane or degrading treatment and "amounts to disappearance". Another troubling aspect of creating an environment with no visibility or apparent accountability was the increased probability that “recourse to illegal methods of questioning is greatly facilitated”.

On the question of diplomatic assurances, she said the international legal ban on torture prohibited transferring persons -- no matter what their crime or suspected activity -- to a place where they would be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment. "If there is no risk of torture in a particular case, such assurances are unnecessary and redundant." If there were such a risk, she questioned how effective such assurances were likely to be.

On allegations that the United States has been keeping people in secret prisons, she said that, not knowing the facts, she could not play the judge. Her role was to make sure that the norms against torture held, laws were being applied and, most importantly, that both the norms and the actual activities were open to the light of day. Ms. Arbour told the press conference that she is "very much looking forward" to her first meeting with Ms. Rice some time in late January.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for those who purport to act in our names, to ask for a blank check -- just trust us, there are very bad things happening out there, we’ll handle it, and the less you know the better. I think that’s completely inappropriate in democratic societies”, she said.

“The law provides the proper balancing between the legitimate security interests of the State with the individual’s own legitimate interests in liberty and personal security. It must do so rationally and dispassionately, even in the face of terror”, she added.

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For information media • not an official record



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