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Ambassador Bolton Criticizes U.N. Human Rights Commissioner

07 December 2005

High Commissioner Arbour's remarks inappropriate, unhelpful, U.S. ambassador says

By Judy Aita
Washington File United Nations Correspondent

United Nations -- U.S. Ambassador John Bolton has criticized U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour for speaking out about alleged U.S. mistreatment of imprisoned suspected terrorists instead of focusing attention on major human-rights abusers such as Cuba, Burma and Zimbabwe.

Bolton said December 7 that it was "disappointing that [Arbour] has chosen to talk about press commentary about alleged American misconduct . . . . It is inappropriate and illegitimate for an international civil servant to second-guess the conduct that we're engaged in in the war on terror with nothing more as evidence than what she reads in the newspapers."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has addressed completely and fully the substance of the allegations, the ambassador said.  (See related article.)

Arbour was at U.N. headquarters to participate in a press conference and panel discussion as part of the observance of Human Rights Day on December 10.  The theme of this year's observance is the global effort combat torture.  In her remarks, the U.N. commissioner said that the absolute ban on torture "a cornerstone of the international human rights edifice, is under attack . . . becoming a casualty of the so-called 'war on terror.'"

Arbour called on all governments to reaffirm their commitment to the total prohibition of torture by condemning torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and prohibiting it in national law; abiding by the principle of not returning persons to countries where they may face torture; and ensuring access to prisoners and abolishing secret detention.

In her remarks she did not mention the United States by name, but in answering questions from journalists, the high commissioner discussed press reports of U.S. actions regarding detainees at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba and allegations of secret prisons in Eastern Europe.


Bolton, the chief U.S. delegate to the United Nations, said that Arbour's comments make it harder for the United States and other governments to reform intergovernmental human rights mechanisms. (See related article.)

"The United States here in New York is engaged in a very difficult struggle to reform the broken U.N. human rights decision-making machinery to abolish the existing Human Rights Commission and to replace it with an effective new Human Rights Council," he said.  "We are not helped in that difficult struggle by comments like Ms. Arbour's. "

"I say this really in sorrow rather than anger," the ambassador added.

Bolton said that efforts to finalize the details on the new Human Rights Council has "lost the momentum that we had" after world leaders endorsed the concept at the U.N. 60th anniversary summit in September.

"We're not going to resign ourselves to not succeeding yet.  But we're not helped in this by the kind of comments we heard" from Arbour, he said.

The United States has been urging the General Assembly to create the new council before December 31 in order to provide for a smooth transition before the next scheduled meeting of the commission in March.  The president of the General Assembly has scheduled daylong negotiations up to December 23, when most delegations leave for end-of-the-year holidays.

There is a lot of opposition to the Human Rights Council "for the same reason that countries like Cuba and Zimbabwe and Burma like to try to get on the existing commission -- to block real scrutiny of their human rights record," Bolton continued.

"Those countries that are the worst abusers of human rights fear a new human rights mechanism that they can't block or pervert to their own ends," he said.

The U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment bans torture under all circumstances and defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession."  It came into effect in June 1987.  The United States is one of the convention's 140 signatories.

For more information about U.S. policy and goals, see Response to Terrorism, and The U.S. and United Nations Reform.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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