Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Accuses US of Still Using Torture at Guantánamo, Asks to Visit and Meet Prisoners Unsupervised


An undated photo of anti-torture (and anti-Guantanamo) protestors in New York City.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.


I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

Last week, following Human Rights Day (on December 10), and the third anniversary of the publication of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program (on December 9), the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, “appealed to the United States to end a pervasive policy of impunity for crimes of torture committed by US officials,” as a UN press release, issued on December 13, stated.

In a statement, Mr. Melzer, who was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in November 2016, after previously working for the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government, made reference to the Senate torture report, noting how it “publicly acknowledged the systematic use of torture in US custody,” and stating, “To this day, however, the perpetrators and policymakers responsible for years of gruesome abuse have not been brought to justice, and the victims have received no compensation or rehabilitation.”

He added, “By failing to prosecute the crime of torture in CIA custody, the US is in clear violation of the Convention against Torture and is sending a dangerous message of complacency and impunity to officials in the US and around the world.”

He explained, as the press release described it, that “he was particularly concerned about detainees who had faced prolonged detention in almost complete isolation,” and “highlighted the case of Ammar al-Baluchi [aka Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali], named 153 times in the Senate report, who is said to have suffered relentless torture for three-and-a-half years in CIA ‘black sites’ before being moved to Guantánamo Bay, where his torture and ill-treatment are reported to continue.”

Explaining his position, Mr. Melzer stated, “Mr. al-Baluchi has been held in isolation at a severely restricted-access facility at Guantánamo Bay for more than a decade. In addition to the long-term effects of past torture, noise and vibrations are reportedly still being used against him, resulting in constant sleep deprivation and related physical and mental disorders, for which he allegedly does not receive adequate medical attention.”

He also “expressed grave concern that statements extracted under torture appeared to be admissible under the 2009 Military Commissions Act and could therefore be used against Mr. al-Baluchi,” and “strongly reminded the US authorities that the ban on torture and ill-treatment was absolute and allowed for no exceptions whatsoever,” as the UN described it.

As Mr. Melzer explained, “This is one of the most fundamental norms of international law, and its violation is listed among the most serious international crimes, including crimes against humanity and war crimes.” Highlighting Article 2.2 of the Convention Against Torture, which states, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture,” Mr. Melzer added, “No circumstances, however exceptional and well argued, may be invoked to justify torture. From Nuremberg to the establishment of the UN War Crimes Tribunals, the United States has contributed decisively to the fight against impunity worldwide. I therefore now urge the US to live up to its legacy, to end its policy of impunity and to bring its own perpetrators to justice.”

He also said that, “in practice, abuse stopped only when effective sanctions for violations were imposed,” as the UN press release explained. As he put it, “A society bruised by torture and abuse can heal only when the truth about secret policies and practices is fully disclosed to the public and when full reparation and rehabilitation is granted to victims.”

Mr. Melzer also “renewed a long-standing request to conduct an official visit to the Guantánamo Bay detention centre and to interview inmates,” as the press release put it — and indeed, since the attacks on September 11, 2001 and the establishment of Guantánamo in January 2002, each of the rapporteurs — Theo van Boven (2001-04), Manfred Nowak (2004-10) and Juan Méndez (2010-16) — has had their requests to visit the prison and to talk to prisoners unsupervised turned down or ignored by the US.

As Mr. Melzer said, “I very much regret that, despite repeated requests, my predecessors and I have consistently been refused access to Guantánamo and other high security facilities in accordance with the standard terms of reference of my UN mandate.”

As with so much about Guantánamo, persistent lawlessness on the part of the US has, in general, led not to an escalation of outrage, but to the government’s crimes being ignored. The illusion is that torture stopped under the Bush administration, and yet claims that noise and vibrations are still being used against “high-value detainees” in the secretive Camp 7 have continued to be made over the years. In addition, it is outrageous that, for nearly 16 years, the US has prevented a visit to the prison by the Special Rapporteur for Torture, and yet this is treated by the US as though the Rapporteur is nothing more than an irritant.

After the release of Mr. Melzer’s statement, Newsweek published an article featuring follow-up comments by the Rapporteur, who stated, in an email, that if the reports he received are true, “the conditions of detention some of the high security inmates are subjected to can only be described as cruel, inhuman and degrading. The only way to determine whether these reports are accurate is for the US to finally allow independent verification by internationally recognised experts.”

He added, “What matters most, and what cannot be disputed, is that US officials have resorted to systematic torture in the past and that the US has consistently refused to prosecute the responsible perpetrators and policy makers. This misguided policy of deliberate impunity for state-sponsored crimes of utmost gravity is not only a danger to US national security, but violates the most basic principles governing any civilized nation, namely humanity, justice and the rule of law.”

Here at “Close Guantánamo,” we wonder, sadly, whether the administration of Donald Trump will even deign to respond to the Special Rapporteur’s criticisms, such is the president’s disdain for the international norms regarding the treatment of prisoners, and his enthusiasm for the continued existence of Guantánamo.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Donald Trump No! Please Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2017), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, promoting a recent and powerful statement by Nils Melzer, the UN Rapporteur on Torture, about credible allegations that torture is ongoing at Guantanamo, in relation to claims by a “high-value detainee,” held in the secretive Camp 7, who alleges that he is subjected to sleep deprivation by noise and vibrations. Melzer also reminded the US government that there are never any excuses for using torture, and highlighted how, since Guantanamo opened, the US has never allowed a Rapporteur to fulfill their mandate by visiting the prison and being allowed to talk to the prisoners without supervision. This is a disgrace, and one that few people seem to know about or care about, and it makes me ask – rhetorically, of course: what has the US done to the Guantanamo prisoners over the years that they are so desperate to hide?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. Sad to say, the malignant influence of Donald Trump seems to be causing some trouble at the UN, as Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, the High Commissioner on Human Rights, has stated that he won’t seek a second term next year, because he “worries the global retreat from human rights makes his job untenable.”

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Dark century … I never could have predicted in hopeful 1999 we’d come so low so fast

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    No, it is another world, David. The only similarity I see is that the housing bubble as a replacement for meaningful economic activity had already begun in 1999. I remember that in 2001 Labour canvassers in Lewisham were out for the last time, because they got so much flak from supporters for what Tony Blair had done to the party in four short years that they never bothered going out again. I had three at my door – two New Labour and one old Labour, who looked embarrassed and knew why he ought to be embarrassed as I told them why I wouldn’t be voting for them. Then we got 9/11, and the illegal and/or misguided wars and the climate of fear that have grown to dominate so much of our lives, and then the other great incident – the crash of 2008, which destroyed the credibility of our current capitalist system, although few people – and literally no one in power – wants to acknowledge it. And in the UK, of course, as a result, we got the vilest Tory government imaginable – using the crash as an excuse for an austerity programme so severe that it is currently in the process of definitively destroying almost all public services, and, as a twisted offshoot of six years of that misery, the suicidal Brexit vote in 2016. I’m not quite sure how Trump came about as a response to eight years of Obama, but the same triumphant ignorance and racism is a reset in the US as it is in the UK, and we should all remember what slinks out of the shadows when economic trust fails and everyday racism takes hold …

  5. Tom says...

    Re: privatization. I recently read that Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Health has some contracts with the NHS to run certain sections of it. Which makes him really disappointing. One minute he comes off as being socially responsible (re: climate change). Then destroy health care.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, he’s a corporate nightmare, Tom. Beyond the hypocrisy of running an airline while claiming to care about climate change, he recently sued the NHS for failing to award him a contract. There’s a petition here on signed by over 115,000 people to date, which demands, ‘Richard Branson and Virgin Care: return the NHS’s money, and never sue the NHS again.’
    As the petition states, “Surrey NHS commissioners felt the services would be better provided by a partnership of NHS organisations, but in the face of Virgin’s threats, to avoid having to fight a court case, they paid Virgin an amount which some reports suggest is as high as £2million.”

  7. Tom says...

    Which means that Branson is following a common business tactic. Sue the other guys and wear them down (time wise, money wise, etc.) until they give in to your demands.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, exactly, Tom, but he’s doing it with the NHS, which isn’t in a position to behave like him. I think that’s what people are finding so unfair, but not in sufficient numbers to save the NHS from more and more of these attritional takeovers, unfortunately. The definitive change will need to come from politicians dismantling the 2011 Health and Social Care Act and putting the NHS back at the heart of British politics, where it absolutely needs to be.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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