Torture a Big Problem Worldwide, UN Expert Says | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 26.06.2008
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Torture a Big Problem Worldwide, UN Expert Says

Despite a ban on torture, it remains widespread in many countries, the UN’s Manfred Nowak recently said in an interview with Deutsche Welle ahead of the UN’s International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

A shackled detainee is transported

Torture and abuse of prisoners remains a widespread problem

Nowak, an Austrian human rights lawyer who currently serves as the United Nation's Special Rapporteur on Torture, sees reasons for both optimism and concern.

To bring attention to ongoing incidents of mistreatment, the UN is sponsoring an International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on Thursday, June 26.

The day could not come at a more appropriate time as state-sponsored violence against opposition politicians has surged in Zimbabwe ahead of upcoming presidential elections. Yet Nowak also has grave concerns about torture in Brazil, Nigeria and the United States.

Ban on torture often ignored

Brazilian police run during a shootout with alleged drug gangs

Many Brazilians believe police can use torture to fight crime

A landmark UN anti-torture convention has been signed by 145 countries. Yet despite the official ban, mistreatment remains widespread, Nowak said.

It's very rare for him to travel to a country where there aren't substantial allegations of torture. The list of countries who are working hard to combat mistreatment is shockingly short, although Nowak cited Denmark as an example.

“Small mistreatment or excessive police force naturally exists everywhere, but (in Denmark) I have no allegations of torture,” Nowak said. “That is really an exception.”

North-South divide

Austria's Manfred Nowak, the UN's Special Rapporteur on torture

Nowak said he sees plenty of reason for concern

Abuse of suspects in police custody remains an issue in countries like Brazil, Nowak said, where half of the population believes torture is a legitimate crime-fighting method. In many countries, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere, torture is seen as a way to solve conflicts. Police are also not afraid to treat suspects harshly.

Nigeria is a similar example, Nowak said, where mistreatment is so widespread that “one would be downright surprised if the police followed all the rules exactly.”

Nowak says he's particularly worried about the situation in Zimbabwe ahead of elections scheduled for Friday. The UN expert said was recently briefed on a torture rehabilitation center in Harare. The facility operates under very difficult conditions, attempting to provide medical attention and treatment to victims of political violence.

Yet the influx of torture victims in recent months has overwhelmed the facility, Nowak said.

Examples of widespread abuse abound in Asia -- there are reports of torture at prisons in Burma, mistreatment at work camps in China, and human rights violations at detention centers in Uzbekistan. And the list goes on.

Torture leaves difficult legacy

Protestors outside Zimbabwe's consulate in South Africa

In Zimbabwe, disturbing reports of torture ahead of the elections

Nowak visited Indonesia in November of 2007 and said he can attest to improvements there since the end of the Suharto regime. Indonesia has become a democratic country that has set an example for its neighbors in Southeast Asia, Nowak said.

Yet there are still plenty of examples of police mistreatment of prisoners in Jakarta and Java, he added. The legacy of torture, developed over decades, is “very, very difficult to eradicate from one day to the next,” Nowak said.

There is also concern that some politicians in the US and Europe are putting a higher priority on fighting terror than on protecting human rights. Nowak, one of the authors of a UN report on Guantanamo, has called for the facility to be closed as quickly as possible. He also wants the US to shut down its secret detention facilities.

Independent checks essential

An American flag waves in the breeze behind razor-wire and fences

Nowak has called on the US to close Guantanamo

The UN's anti-torture convention got a boost in 2006, when a mechanism came into force that allowed independent international and national bodies to visit prisons.

Nowak said it is now up to European countries, which supported the measure, to put the money and resources into making sure that national prevention mechanisms are put into place.

It's up to countries to ensure that “to as large an extent as possible, torture truly no longer exists,” Nowak said.

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