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World

UN report documents secret prisons, calls for urgent action

Terrorism suspects have been detained in secret prisons and sometimes tortured in 66 countries, according to a UN report. Human rights experts are calling for action and prosecutions for those responsible.

prisoner's hand through bars

The UN report calls for persecutions for those who ordered secret detentions

The first global investigation of secret detention facilities conducted by the United Nations found that in 66 of 192 UN nations, several thousand people have been detained in secret facilities and even tortured since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

Arbitrary arrests and disappearances, shadowy prisons and criminal interrogation methods were all common practices in earlier centuries, but since the 9/11 attacks, these kinds of violations of international human rights rules have become more and more frequent. They almost all happen under the guise of preventing terrorism, the 220-page UN report said.

Included on the list of those countries with secret prisons are three permanent members of the UN Security Council - China, Russia and the United States. They are accompanied by Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and several African countries as well as European states, such as Poland, Romania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Lithuania.

Crimes again humanity?

"Secret detention amounts to an enforced disappearance, and if resorted to in a widespread or systematic manner, it might reach the threshold of a crime against humanity," Manfred Nowak, the UN's special rapporteur on torture and one of the report's authors, said during debate on the report on Thursday.

Manfred Nowak

The report's authors concluded that secret detention 'violates a number of human rights amd humanitarian law norms'

The dimensions of the problem could be even greater than the report lays out. The detailed questionnaire that Nowak, Martin Scheinin, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter terrorism, as well as other UN experts formulated and sent to the UN's 192 member countries was only answered by 44.

Of these, not one admitted to the existence of secret prisons. The report's authors depended on independent sources for their investigation and many countries denied them any kind of access to relevant materials or sources.

Denial and censorship

During the debate, China, Russia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Syria, Algeria and other African nations denied that any secret detention facilities existed on their territory. They accused the report's authors of sloppy research, of overstepping their mandate and of compiling the report without being commissioned to do so by the UN Human Rights Council.

"We are concerned at the unprofessional way in which the report was written and presented," said Syria's representative to the council. "The report makes use of unverified allegations by non-credible parties and presents them as fact."

In March, Pakistan and other nations called for the report, which was scheduled to be discussed then, to be removed from the UN agenda, and the Belgian president of the council agreed to that demand.

In the meantime, Russia and Pakistan have asked that the report be removed from the UN's website and that debate around it be terminated. However, this call for censorship failed in the wake of objections from independent human rights groups.

Scant support

Only a few UN states, including Sweden, Canada and South Africa, gave their unreserved approval to the report during the debate of the Human Rights Council.

an unidentified prisoner reads in jail

The UN said "secret detention should be explicitly prohibited"

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, underlined the fact that President Barack Obama has announced the closing of the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, although it was never a secret facility.

However, she made no comment on the Bagram facility, the main detention facility for persons detained by US forces in Afghanistan, or other formerly secret prisons in third countries where American officials sent prisoners who were then often subjected to harsh interrogation procedures or torture.

The report's authors called for the immediate closure of all secret detention facilities as well as for compensation for those who were victims of illegal imprisonment and torture. No former detainee has yet to receive any kind of compensation.

Both Nowak and Scheinin said they hoped that the Human Rights Council would pass a resolution on the matter, although after the debate and opposition to the report, that wish is seen as fairly unrealistic.

Author: Andreas Zumach (jam)
Editor: Rob Turner

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