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Press Conference by Human Rights Experts on Issue of Torture, 18 October 2011

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

There was no universal standard for the definition of long-term and other abusive forms of solitary confinement, but there was no doubt that it should be banned as torture, three human rights experts said at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.

“I was in solitary confinement for only three days myself during the time I was in prison in Argentina, and those were the longest three days of my life,” Juan Méndez, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment told correspondents following the presentation of his report to the General Assembly’s Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural). “We, States especially, have to be very careful when we decide to impose that kind of treatment on anybody.”

Joining Mr. Méndez at the press conference after their presentations to the Assembly Committee were Claudio Grossman, Chair of the Committee against Torture, which monitors compliance with the International Convention against the practice, and Malcolm Evans, Chair of the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture, which oversees implementation of the Treaty’s Optional Protocol that enables unannounced visits to detention facilities to ensure that conditions that allowed torture did not develop.

“It can really have harmful effects over a very long period,” Mr. Mendez said of solitary confinement. “In that sense it could be even worse than some forms of physical mistreatment whose effects go away very quickly.”

In a first try at developing a standard, he said that indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days of 22 hours of isolation per day should be subject to an absolute prohibition, citing scientific studies of when mental damage was most likely to occur. He also called for an end to isolation in pretrial detention, if based solely on the seriousness of the offence alleged, as well as a ban on its use for juveniles and persons with mental disabilities. He was open, he said, to comment on those standards, in an effort to develop definitions that were recognized widely.

Occasionally, solitary confinement was permissible, when it was short-term and accomplished a practical purpose, such as protection of homosexual persons or those who run afoul of prison gangs. “In the exceptional circumstances in which its use is legitimate, procedural safeguards must be followed,” he commented.

“There is something very valuable that the international community established -- there is no vacuum here,” Mr. Grossman said, briefing on the presentations made to the Third Committee on the full anti-torture regime. “We have a prohibition and we have procedures, we do what we can to advance the rule of law under commitments freely undertaken by States.”

He said that not only did his Committee continue to analyze country reports, it also had come to 12 decisions in its last session on violations in individual cases. He cited the case of a Serbian citizen of Roma origin who was beaten by police in 2002, subsequent to arrest, while tied to a radiator. The Committee determined that the State had violated its obligations in a way that required not only monetary damages, but also restitution of the previous situation. Compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition were all important in that regard.

Mr. Evans said that the international and national mechanisms created to allow inspections under the Optional Protocol to the anti-torture Convention were transformational beyond the 61 countries that had signed on to the relatively new instrument. Transparency had been enhanced in detention facilities the world over and independent inspection was becoming accepted. The mechanisms were not yet perfect, he acknowledged, in response to questions from correspondents, but there was no legal vacuum. He appealed for States that had not yet done so to accede to the Convention and the optional protocol.

In response to a question about Private First Class Bradley Manning, who is being held in the United States after the WikiLeaks releases, Mr. Mendez confirmed that he was denied unmonitored access to the detainee. He added that Private Manning was no longer in solitary confinement after some eight months, but he could not confirm that his detention did not violate other possible standards.

To a question about culpability for officials from the administration of United States President George Bush who admitted using techniques that could be called torture, the experts affirmed that, according to the Convention, every credible allegation of torture must be investigated. They were not in a position, however, to say who should be prosecuted.

Mr. Grossman noted that the United States had not accepted the complaint system of the optional protocol, but such issues could be addressed when the report of the country was due under the Convention. “The Committee talks through its reports,” he said.

In regard to his activities in the context of the “Arab Spring”, Mr. Mendez said that he had visited Tunisia, had requested a visit to Egypt and some other Middle East countries and had been invited to Bahrain. The visiting process was much more cumbersome than he wished, he commented, but in situations of unrest, there was much concern over staff security on the part of the United Nations. He had not received complaints about the interim Government in Libya, although he had called on the Qaddafi regime to exercise restraint in their handling of demonstrators.

To a question about protecting society from terrorism, the experts explained that the human rights canon agreed to by States said that protection of civilians must be conducted within the rules of international law. Society did not protect itself by going beyond humane treatment, they stressed. Mr. Mendez added that it took a long time for societies to recover from abuses; Argentina had not yet emerged from its period of widespread torture.

Mr. Grossman stressed that when police were allowed to go beyond restrictions, systemic abuse became part of the equation. Treaties that established prohibitions on torture were law, he noted; they had gone through a long approval process. If States wanted to change such law they should make proposal and go through the legal procedures. “One punishes people in accordance with the law; one doesn’t punish people in the breach of law”, Mr. Evans affirmed.

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