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UN: Council Approves Torture Measure Despite U.S. Objections

  • Robert McMahon

A key United Nations chamber has passed a draft international treaty intended to establish effective preventive measures against torture. The action late yesterday came despite U.S. attempts to reopen negotiations to discuss what it says are shortcomings that make some treaty provisions intrusive. The United States stressed its staunch opposition to torture but found itself again accused of acting unilaterally on an important international instrument.

United Nations, 25 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A draft treaty that seeks to adopt a more proactive approach to combating torture has passed through a top United Nations body, moving closer to full approval after 10 years of negotiations.

The UN's 54-member Economic and Social Council, or ECOSOC, approved the measure by a wide margin yesterday, despite an effort by the United States to reopen negotiations to address what it says are flaws and the need for consensus to make the treaty enforceable.

The United States ended up abstaining from the vote that approved what is known as the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. In explaining the vote, U.S. representative John Davison told delegates that the United States condemns torture, prohibits its practice under state and federal laws, and is the largest contributor to the UN voluntary fund for the victims of torture.

But Davison reiterated U.S. concerns that the treaty's text, among other things, would infringe on the federal rights of individual U.S. states by allowing international inspections of state prisons without the approval of state governments. "The current text of the draft optional protocol before ECOSOC has serious flaws. In some respects, its overall approach on certain specific provisions is contrary to our constitution, particularly with respect to matters of search and seizure. Furthermore, in view of our federal system of government, the regime established by the draft would be overly intrusive," Davison said.

The new treaty would establish an international system of inspection visits to places of detention. That would include, for example, UN inspections of U.S.-run detention centers where Taliban and Al-Qaeda detainees are held. The treaty would apply only to those countries that ratify it.

The treaty would supplement and help enforce the convention on torture, which went into force 15 years ago and has been ratified by 130 countries, including the United States. The new measure was first approved at the UN Commission on Human Rights earlier this year in Geneva and was seen by rights campaigners as one of the few bright developments in a session that had become overly politicized.

An expert with Human Rights Watch, Rory Mungoven, told RFE/RL that at present, international mechanisms against torture are mostly reactive. The UN system can assign special rapporteurs to investigate charges of torture and then pressure states to end the practice. The new protocol, Mungoven said, could help stop torture before it happens. "This would be a kind of much more preventive regime, a kind of routine regular visit and dialogue with governments on how to prevent torture from happening in the first place," Mungoven said.

Mungoven and other rights activists say that after 10 years of debate, a number of checks and balances have been built into the protocol to address governments' concerns about intrusiveness. He says the protocol ensures consultation with governments, prior notification of visits, and the confidentiality of reports.

Mungoven said the supplementary treaty has been championed by governments in Mexico and some African countries where officials have identified a problem with torture and want to use international mechanisms to reform their systems. "I think actually it can be very effective in situations where a government acknowledges it's got a problem and wants some international support in dealing with this and that's where I think this could have a real impact," Mungoven said.

The protocol had the backing of most European countries, as well as Latin American and African states. In addition to the United States, opponents of the measure included Cuba, Iran, Libya, and China. Those last four states are among those often accused by rights groups of practicing torture.

The rights group Amnesty International says people were tortured or ill-treated by authorities in 111 countries last year. Rights groups says torture remains widespread in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The UN rapporteur on human rights in Iraq says there have been numerous reports of torture in Iraqi prisons.

The protocol will next be considered by the 189-member UN General Assembly, where it would need to be approved by a majority of states. It would then require a number of ratifications to go into force.