UN Human Rights Council Discusses Secret Detention Report


On June 3, largely unnoticed in the Western media, the UN Human Rights Council held an interactive dialogue to discuss the “Joint Study on Global Practices in Relation to Secret Detention in the Context of Counter-Terrorism,” prepared by Martin Scheinin, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Manfred Nowak, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Shaheen Ali, the vice-chair of the Working Group on arbitrary detention, and Jeremy Sarkin, the chair of the Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances.

The study (A/HRC/13/42) was published on February 19, 2010, and is available here as a PDF. Over the course of this week, I’ll also be publishing section 4 of the report, dealing with US policies since the 9/11 attacks, in three separate sections. The first examines “The ‘high-value detainee’ programme and CIA secret detention facilities,” the second looks at “CIA detention facilities or facilities operated jointly with United States military in battlefield zones,” and the third looks at “Proxy detention sites,” “Complicity in the practice of secret detention” and “Secret detention and the Obama administration.” An advance unedited version of the report was published on January 26, which I discussed in an article at the time, entitled, “UN Secret Detention Report Asks, ‘Where Are The CIA Ghost Prisoners?’”

The report focused on 66 countries involved in the secret detention of terrorist suspects since 9/11. Many of these — including European countries, Canada, Australia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Syria and Pakistan — were tied in with the activities of the United States, in the section of the report mentioned above, which collated information about US policies involving “extraordinary rendition” and secret prisons, focusing on the most up-to-date information about the 94 prisoners held in the CIA’s secret prisons (based on figures disclosed in one of the Office of Legal Counsel’s notorious ‘torture memos’ (PDF), written in May 2005 by Assistant Attorney General Stephen Bradbury, and made available by President Obama as part of a court case in April 2009), and the many dozens of others subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture in other countries, where they were sent by the CIA.

In addition, 25 other countries — including Algeria, China, India, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Libya, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe — were also included, in a section analyzing the nature and scope of secret detention practices around the world

In my article in January, I also explained that, in the report, the experts concluded that, “On a global scale, secret detention in connection with counter-terrorist policies remains a serious problem,” and that, “If resorted to in a widespread and systematic manner, secret detention might reach the threshold of a crime against humanity.” Moreover, as IPS explained on June 3, the report also notes that many countries, citing national security concerns, which are “often perceived or presented as unprecedented emergencies or threats,” resort to secret detention, even though “International law clearly prohibits secret detention, which violates a number of human rights and humanitarian law norms that may not be derogated [from] under any circumstances.”

In the months since the report was published, its progress towards discussion in the Human Rights Council was almost derailed in March, when Russia, a number of African countries and the Organization of the Islamic Conference objected to it, claiming that the experts “violated the [UN] code of conduct and acted outside [their] mandates.” These criticisms, which delayed the discussion of the report until June 3, prompted Manfred Nowak, the Special Rapporteur on Torture, to condemn them as “a totally political consideration” and to point out:

We are independent experts — the eyes and ears of the council — and we provided it with a report drawing their attention to a very serious worldwide problem based on a great deal of work over the past year. Secret detention is not just a minor human rights violation; it’s a crime, a major human rights violation … I am seriously concerned by the way states at the Human Rights Council are treating their own independent experts. The council should stop criticizing its own experts and start taking human rights seriously and collaborating with its independent experts to address major human rights violations by the states that are responsible.

As a result of this dissent, the discussion of the report two weeks ago was something of a triumph, although it remains to be seen whether the Human Rights Council will respond positively to the experts’ call for a resolution on secret detention, demanding “explicit legislation prohibiting secret and other unofficial detention, the mandatory keeping of detention records and independent inspection of all detention sites,” as well as the immediate closure of all secret detention facilities, and compensation for those subjected to secret detention.

Manfred Nowak told the Human Rights Council, “We think this is enough evidence that the council should take action,” and in the debate the experts stated that “secret detention should be explicitly prohibited along with all other forms of unofficial detention,” and noted, “In almost no recent cases have there been any judicial investigations into allegations of secret detentions and practically no one has been brought to justice.”

After the debate, Martin Scheinin, the Special Rapporteur on the Protection of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism, said it was “clear from the debate that the issue had not been brushed away despite months of delay,” as the Swiss website Expatica described it. Speaking to journalists, Scheinin said, “I don’t think the Human Rights Council can ignore the need for inquiries at domestic level, that will necessarily be part of the package.”

Despite the experts’ hopes, Deutsche Welle noted that a detailed questionnaire that experts sent to the UN’s 192 member countries was only answered by 44 of those countries, and, moreover, “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.”

The article also noted, “During the debate, China, Russia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Syria, Algeria and other African nations denied that any secret detention facilities existed on their territory.” Revisiting the complaints they made when the report was first published, “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.” A sign of the kind of dissent that surfaced can be found in comments made by Syria’s representative, who, despite the country’s well-known human rights abuses in its prisons, stated, “We are concerned at the unprofessional way in which the report was written and presented. The report makes use of unverified allegations by non-credible parties and presents them as fact.”

Nevertheless, reflecting on the discussion, Martin Scheinin told IPS, “It went better than expected. The report has been very controversial and now there appears to be acknowledgement that the issue is serious enough not to be trivialized by procedural filibustery.” He added that a number of countries who were originally opposed to the report, like Egypt, “chose not to speak” at the meeting, rather than raising objections, although he acknowledged the complaints of Syria, Russia and Algeria (speaking on behalf of the African Group), and specific complaints raised by Canada, China, Ethiopia, and Nepal.

As Deutsche Welle also explained, however, “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,” and although the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, made it clear that the dark days of John Bolton (President Bush’s ambassador, who had nothing but contempt for the UN) were long gone, her attempts to deflect attention from scrutiny of the US rendition and torture program, by mentioning President’s Obama promise to close Guantánamo, were weak for two reasons.

The first of these is because the President has, in fact, failed to close the prison, having missed his self-imposed deadline for doing so, and no new date has been set for its closure; and the second is that, as Deutsche Welle also noted, Susan Rice “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.”

Even so, the experts were obviously relieved that the US had not opposed the report. Shaheen Ali explained that the US ambassador to the Human Rights Council, Eileen Donahoe, “backed the study although she raised concerns about the methodology used in preparing it,” and Martin Scheinin added that, although, as “a matter of international law,” the Obama administration was “continuing to violate their human rights obligations by not closing” Guantánamo and by not holding trials for those held there, “on the domestic level and on the policy level, I understand the situation. The government is unable to do anything when the legislature prohibits part of the options available, namely taking a single person from Guantánamo to the mainland United States.” As a result, he said, he understood that the focus is on convincing third countries to offer homes to prisoners cleared for release, who cannot be repatriated because of fears that they will be tortured in their home countries.

Without accountability for the crimes committed under the Bush administration, and explanations of what happened to the significant number of prisoners held in the secret prison network — beyond those who ended up at Guantánamo, who were released (in a few cases) or who, like Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, were repatriated and later killed — the experts’ call for secret detention to be brought to an end will lack the kind of impact that will make other countries think twice about aping US policies, or continuing with the kind of policies that inspired the Bush administration in the first place.

In the report, President Obama got off lightly given recent reports of dubious detention and interrogation practices in Afghanistan — even though, just the day before the discussion of the report in the Human Rights Council, Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, issued a report on America’s “targeted killing” program using drones, and told the Council that it amounted to “a license to kill without accountability.” With reference to what he described as the “prolific” US use of “targeted killings,” which also echoed what happened with President Bush’s program of “extraordinary rendition,” secret detention and torture, Alston explained that the US was “setting a damaging example that other countries would follow,” as Middle East Online described it.

“I’m particularly concerned that the United States seems oblivious to this fact when it asserts an ever-expanding entitlement for itself to target individuals across the globe,” Alston told the Council, adding, “In a situation in which there is no disclosure of who has been killed, for what reason, and whether innocent civilians have died, the legal principle of international accountability is, by definition, comprehensively violated.”

Alston’s report helped to shine a light on the extent to which drone killings have replaced the messy business of “extraordinary rendition,” torture and secret prisons under the Obama administration, further undercutting Susan Rice’s protestations about President Obama’s record, and reinforcing how important the role of the United States is in shaping internationally acceptable standards for dealing with terrorism.

It is not enough for President Obama to maintain, as he has since before taking office, that his administration wants to “look forward and not backwards.” By doing so, he ensures that the crimes of the previous administration not only remain largely hidden (as the report demonstrates), but, more importantly, a message is sent out to the rest of the world that those at the highest levels of the US government who commit crimes that “might reach the threshold of a crime against humanity” continue to demonstrate, through their speeches and tours, that they are, to all intents and purposes, beyond the law.

And with the continuing exposure of his own forays into similar territory through the CIA’s “targeted killings” program, President Obama also needs to reflect on his own responsibility to uphold “the legal principle of international accountability” whose wreckage is so thoroughly exposed in the UN’s secret detention report.

Note: For member states’ responses during the discussion of the report on June 3, see this UN article here.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — 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. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation. Cross-posted on The Public Record and Op-Ed News.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah?, CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison , Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, The “Suicide” Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: Why The Media Silence?, Two Experts Cast Doubt On Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s “Suicide”, Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq, In the Guardian: Death in Libya, betrayal by the West (in the Guardian here), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney’s Iraq Lies Again (And Rumsfeld And The CIA) (all May 2009) and WORLD EXCLUSIVE: New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (June 2009), The Logic of the 9/11 Trials, The Madness of the Military Commissions (November 2009), UK Judges Compare Binyam Mohamed’s Torture To That Of Abu Zubaydah (November 2009), UN Secret Detention Report Asks, “Where Are The CIA Ghost Prisoners?” (January 2010), Binyam Mohamed: Evidence of Torture by US Agents Revealed in UK (February 2010), Torture Whitewash: How “Professional Misconduct” Became “Poor Judgment” in the OPR Report (February 2010), Judges Restore Damning Passage on MI5 to the Binyam Mohamed Torture Ruling (February 2010), What Torture Is, and Why It’s Illegal and Not “Poor Judgment” (March 2010), Abu Zubaydah’s Torture Diary (March 2010), Seven Years of War in Iraq: Still Based on Cheney’s Torture and Lies (March 2010), Protests worldwide on Aafia Siddiqui Day, Sunday March 28, 2010 (March 2010), Abu Zubaydah: Tortured for Nothing (April 2010), Mohamedou Ould Salahi: How a Judge Demolished the US Government’s Al-Qaeda Claims (April 2010), Judge Rules Yemeni’s Detention at Guantánamo Based Solely on Torture (April 2010), How Binyam Mohammed’s Torture Was Revealed in a US Court (May 2010), What is Obama Doing at Bagram? (Part One): Torture and the “Black Prison” (June 2010), New Report Reveals How Bush Torture Program Involved Human Experimentation (June 2010). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

7 Responses

  1. Will Shirley says...

    We’re going to have to have a new revolution to shake the snakes out of the Liberty Tree. Like South Africa we absolutely need a Truth and Reconciliation movement to rip the lies and distortions from our own history. For instance, since I was a toddler I was told the Founders were Christian. I was given to understand that only evil southern blacks held slaves. Our country, I was told, is a democracy and is the only powerful democracy in the Christian world. All lies, every one. We live in at best a plutocracy but more accurately we live in a fascist country by any standards. No, we don’t speak German or murder (many) Jews, but neither did Mussolini. As you know, Andy, fascism is a government of by and for the corporations at the expense of personal freedoms and rights. Invariably a fascist state will believe itself to be invincible, undoubtedly because the leaders become above the law, as Cheney and Bush and the others are. Once you identify the country with yourself a fascist leader always becomes a dictator for life, which averages about 5 more years or until the rest of the world stops fucking off and takes the outlaw state out.

    So given that no population has ever had the balls to stand up and stop a nation from becoming a fascist dictatorship we can expect that following Obama we will get another seemingly disconnected President while the secret prisons grow and the wars continue to spread, spurred on by American weapons and technology. Eventually China and the Eurozone recognize they have to stop us and we get another horrible war. At this stage of the game the original novel stops with the innocent civilians dying in cities filled with smoke and broken mirrors, but the new version has the happy workers sitting down with their noble wardens for a couple of shots of Kentucky sour mash(made in China).

    I submit for anyone listening that the United States needs to be less united. A federation of a half dozen or so regional governments with the largest cities broken off into city-states would probably fit the bill. New York City is bigger than Rhode Island… Alaska can be sold to the Siberians and Hawaii could return to it’s status as an independent nation. According to the Constitution of the old USA states are expected to maintain the ability to call up a militia of trained fighters, but there is no provision for a standing army. Get rid of it. Get rid of the CIA, the HSA and all the secret groups we refuse to admit we have. Leave the Mideast. Period. Total disengagement from the region because those assholes live in the 12th century and I for one would like to enjoy the 21st century. Stop killing babies.

    Furthermore, as an older man with withered loins I would like to suggest a radical adjustment to American society. two parts: One- scrub mass media of gratuitous sex scenes especially those which flash between sex and violence- fuck, bang, fuck, bang. Not good for the children and we are all of us children. Two- figure out a way to turn off male sex drive at puberty, said drive to be turned back on when the male gets married and is able to support a family. Too many people have been killed because some kid with a hard on was too frustrated and decided to rob, rape, murder or something to work it off. I say take away the distraction. Take the years to learn about history, philosophy and literature. THEN screw your brains out.

    Of course I understand we are due for another BIG WAR and none of my ideas will be acted upon, but I hope someday enough humans will have survived to learn to think with their brain. That will help. Hitler had one testicle and so millions died. Bush has a tiny little dinky and so hundreds of thousands died. Cheney propagates asexually.

    HEY! Why not require a complete psychological analysis for anyone running for President? You have to prove sanity and intelligence to be President. Wouldn’t that be great? I am so totally exhausted being ruled over by Charlie Manson clones, I want a sane human in the Oval Office, just once!

  2. Frances Madeson says...

    If nothing else, this Blue Paper begins to officially establish the conceptual framework for the lived experiences of far too many victims of the War of Terror who have found themselves, temporarily or permanently, lost in the labyrinth. Importantly, it also lays the groundwork–in that it provides the legal justification–for the case for reparations. Though I believe we need to go far beyond reparations, or even restitution, all the way to amends.

    Amends. Not just for our victims, but equally, or perhaps even more so, for ourselves. So we can begin to slough off our own burden of collective complicity with its accompanying putrefying shame, and not unnecessarily transmit it, like in-utero HIV for instance—a medicinal success story we can easily emulate—to the next generation, whom we have already so unduly burdened. The common wisdom and sense as expressed in Steps 8 and 9 of the 12 Steps to Serenity, as well as the Buddhist myth of Asanga, are instructive on this point. That’s the good news: No wheel-invention required. http://www.viewonbuddhism.org/discussion/viewtopic.php?t=139&view=next&sid=4c0c519fbc534eee1de47eb146aa138f

    At 186 pages, A/HRC/13/42 is brief considering its scope. It doesn’t take long to read the few pages in the Introduction, also the Conclusion and Recommendations, and to peruse the rest enough to be able to follow intelligently along with Andy’s upcoming analysis. Even at a cursory glance, I can honestly say that this one document justifies all of the many traffic jams and other minor inconveniences suffered in cohabiting with the U.N.’s Manhattan headquarters. We all know what a drag it is to lose those 20 or so minutes waiting for the motorcade to drive by. That’s my suggestion for factoring an equitable reparations formula (and I’m quite serious about this). Assign a monetary value to compensate for the frustration and anguish of 20 lost minutes and make that value the denominator in whatever monetary calculations are to be offered. And then, double it.

    Why double it? For emphasis. And simply–because apparently we do need to keep it simple–to remember and never forget the torment of all of those whom we have doubled over in pain from our disgracefully lax disregard for their well-being and humanity.

    I say we pay them once for their pain and once for our painful inaction. Fair enough?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you both, Will and Frances, even if the overall prognosis is a gloomy as ever. And Frances, I can offer you only an HTML version of the section of the report that deals with US policies since 9/11, rather than the analysis you mentioned, but it’s a good primer for those who want to know about what has been done in their name.
    Part One here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2010/06/15/un-secret-detention-report-part-one-the-cias-high-value-detainee-program-and-secret-prisons/
    Part Two (CIA prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq) will be published tomorrow, and Part Three (on proxy prisons, other states’ complicity, and Obama’s record) on Thursday.

  4. UN Secret Detention Report (Part One): The CIA’s “High-Value Detainee” Program and Secret Prisons « Black Cafe Network News says...

    […] } To complement my recent article, “UN Human Rights Council Discusses Secret Detention Report,” in which I explained how, two weeks ago, the UN Human Rights Council had — after some delays […]

  5. UN Secret Detention Report (Part Two): CIA Prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq « Black Cafe Network News says...

    […] } To complement my recent article, “UN Human Rights Council Discusses Secret Detention Report,” in which I explained how, two weeks ago, the UN Human Rights Council had — after some delays […]

  6. Die CIA-Gefängnisse in Afghanistan und Irak « Ticker says...

    […] complement my recent article, “UN Human Rights Council Discusses Secret Detention Report,” in which I explained how, two weeks ago, the UN Human Rights Council had — after some delays […]

  7. U.N. Secret Detention Report « Little Alex in Wonderland says...

    […] Intro: U.N. Human Rights Council Discusses Secret Detention Report […]

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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