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Interview: UN Envoy On Torture Says Concerned About Iran

The United Nations' special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, is concerned not only about reports of torture, but executions of minors as well.

The United Nations' special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, is concerned not only about reports of torture, but executions of minors as well.

In the wake of the UN Human Rights Council's recent session on Iran, RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Javad Kouroshy asked Manfred Nowak, the UN's special rapporteur on torture, about his attempts to visit Tehran and his efforts to make governments around the world take better care of their detainees. Nowak also discussed his hopes of seeing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay closed.

RFE/RL: During the UN conference on human rights that took place last month in Geneva, the idea of sending a special UN envoy to Iran was discussed. Your name was mentioned, as well. So my first question is: can a decision by the UN be expected soon?

Manfred Nowak:
We are actually not talking about a decision by the UN Human Rights Council, which replaced the [Human Rights] Commission a few years ago. It really depends on the willingness of the Iranian government to issue a formal invitation to me.

There were several states in the Human Rights Council which -- within the framework of the Universal Periodic Review process-- made it very clear that Iran, with regard to last year's incidents, should invite the UN special rapporteur on torture. So far, the Iranian government has not followed up on this proposal, this recommendation. But only recently I had a very positive conversation with the Iranian ambassador in Vienna, and he supports this proposal.

I have to say that I am really concerned about the situation [in Iran]. These reports were denied several times, but I think it would be best to conduct our own investigations on the ground.
I don't know yet if I will be able to pay a visit to Iran. Basically, Iran has issued a so-called standing invitation to all UN special rapporteurs, meaning that in case such an invitation has been issued by a state, I could address myself to Iran and say that I accept this general invitation and that I would like to pay a visit to Iran in, let's say, July or September.

Usually, this works fine. But, as I mentioned before, despite this standing invitation, Iran only reluctantly issues invitations to UN special rapporteurs.

RFE/RL: Would you accept an invitation?

Yes, of course. I already last year repeatedly expressed my willingness to the Iranian government to accept their standing invitation. I would be glad to pay a visit to Iran, especially after the elections last year and different allegations about torture in Iranian prisons; I sent numerous urgent appeals to the Iranian government.

I have to say that I am really concerned about the situation. These reports were denied several times, but I think it would be best to conduct our own investigations on the ground.

RFE/RL: This means that you have been closely following events in Iran, correct?

Yes, of course, and not only in Iran but also in other countries. We are not only talking about the controversies in the aftermath of the elections, but also about death sentences and the enforcement of these death sentences. I repeatedly turned to the Iranian government by means of urgent appeals -- some of them were successful, others not-- regarding executions of women or adolescent persons, which I consider inhumane.

Government Cooperation

RFE/RL: You have been monitoring other cases and were tasked with paying visits to other countries and deliver reports to the UN, too. Were you successful in effecting change with your reports?

Yes, of course. I have just come back from a trip to Jamaica where cooperation with the government went really well, but conditions of detention, especially police detention, are dismal. I clearly expressed a recommendation to shorten police detention terms.

Iran is the world's second-leading executioner.
Last year, I was in Uruguay where the government was very cooperative, as well. We were not confronted with torture, but bad conditions of detention. Immediately after my visit, the president of Uruguay ordered the prisons I criticized most to be closed down.

This means that change does not depend so much on pressure or decisions by the Human Rights Council in Geneva, but rather on the openness and willingness of governments to cooperate. By issuing an invitation, the government signals its interest in how an external observer assesses conditions and what recommendations I can give. These recommendations are often implemented. I can provide you with more examples in Georgia, in Jordan, or other states where my visits and fact-finding missions led to close cooperation with the respective states.

In such cases, the international community is willing to assist the governments in implementing my recommendations in the field of development cooperation. They offer trainings for police staff, sometimes even changes in legislation can be achieved or new detention facilities with humane conditions are built.

RFE/RL: This implies cooperation with local authorities. According to your experience, can unhindered investigations be conducted in these countries?

This, again, depends on the circumstances. I only accept invitations when I can be assured that my methods of independent investigation are duly respected. This means that unannounced visits to all facilities of detention -- police detention centers, prisons, mental hospitals etc.-- must be allowed. Furthermore, I must be guaranteed the right to have confidential conversations, one on one, with all detainees I want to talk with.

Most of the states that issued invitations to me respect my methods of conducting investigations. Problems can be solved on the spot. I was granted the right to conduct independent investigations in all states I visited, although in some states there were efforts made to restrict my scope of action. Nevertheless, I always managed to draw my own conclusions due to independent research.

Closing Guantanamo

RFE/RL: The Guantanamo detention camp, where suspected Taliban and other detainees are held in custody, was arguably the most prominent case you investigated. Could you comment on that, please?

Yes, sure. But in this case, I actually did not accept the invitation of the Bush administration, as the Bush administration was among the very few governments that did not allow me to have confidential conversations with detainees in Guantanamo.

We scrupulously interviewed former detainees in England and other states such as France, instead, to get to know more about the conditions of detention in Guantanamo. We compared these descriptions with information already available from the United States, such as instructions issued by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, interrogation methods and so forth.

The evidence from both sides was nearly identical. Therefore, we came to the conclusion that detention as such was in violation of international law and human rights, suspects were detained over a long period of time without any legal action taken. Secondly, individuals were tortured in the course of interrogations or were treated in an inhumane manner.

For this reason, we first -- by virtue of our status as international experts -- demanded closure of the detention camp in Guantanamo. Newly elected President [Barack] Obama immediately reacted to our demand on his second day in office declaring that he intended to close the camp within a year. This, unfortunately, did not happen.

This is partly due to the fact that the U.S. Congress has put some stumbling blocks in the way and European and other states are not really willing to cooperate when it comes to accepting Guantanamo detainees on their territory. But I am confident that the detention camp will be closed down in the near future.

RFE/RL: Last question: I assume that governments are not obliged to implement recommendations or requests put forward in your reports. How would you assess the impact of your reports on imprisoned individuals?

Correct. My recommendations are not legally binding. It depends on the will of the states to cooperate. If they are truly interested in the opinion and assessment of an external expert, cooperation can be fruitful. There are numerous positive examples and I have already mentioned a few: Uruguay (the best example), Denmark, Indonesia implemented some of our recommendations, Georgia, Moldova and so forth. China was partly cooperative.

But then, there are other states that do not take our recommendations seriously. Equatorial Guinea can be used as an extreme example, where we found systematic torture practiced. The government simply rejected my conclusions and recommendations. The Bush administration rejected our report as well, but still, the Obama administration turned its attention to the report again and wants to close down the Guantanamo detention camp.

Nepal is another positive example where my recommendations were speedily implemented; the situation of the Nepalese population has significantly improved. It really depends on the political will of the respective governments to act on our recommendations.