NEW YORK - Human rights organisations here are hailing the recommendations of the United Nations Committee Against Torture that the United States close its Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention centre, cease holding detainees in secret prisons, and stop the practice of "rendering" prisoners to countries where they are likely to be tortured.
The committee -- a panel of 10 independent experts -- is the U.N. body that monitors compliance with the world's anti-torture treaty. Last week, it concluded two days of hearings in Geneva, Switzerland, where a 26-member U.S. delegation defended Washington's treatment of prisoners and emphasised its prosecutions of those guilty of abuse.
The United States would do well to heed what all its friends and every independent body are saying. It's time to put the rule of law into the fight against terrorism.
Reed Brody, special counsel for Human Rights Watch
The committee periodically reviews each of the 141 countries that have ratified the Convention against Torture (CAT). In previous years, the committee has criticised abusive interrogation techniques and secret or indefinite detention by countries ranging from Sweden to Saudi Arabia.
Reed Brody, special counsel for Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IPS, "The United States would do well to heed what all its friends and every independent body are saying. It's time to put the rule of law into the fight against terrorism."
Another major group, Human Rights First (HRF), welcomed the report and urged the U.S. government to "take immediate steps to implement the McCain Amendment" as a first step.
The McCain Amendment is named for U.S. Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who was held prisoner for eight years during the Vietnam War. His amendment, part of a massive spending bill to support military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, directs the U.S. military to abide by the practices to be set out in a new Army Field Manual, and specifically prohibits U.S. government personnel, including those of the Central Intelligence Agency, from inflicting cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment on prisoners.
However, doubt has been cast on the effectiveness of the measure because of the "signing statement" added by Pres. George W. Bush as the bill became law. Bush said the amendment could be modified by national security considerations as determined by the president.
Gabor Rona, HRF's international legal director, told IPS, "What is most striking is how severely U.S. detention and interrogation policies and practices have damaged efforts to protect human rights around the world."
The U.N. committee's report demanded that the U.S. close its prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and said detainees should not be returned to any country where they could face a "real risk" of being tortured.
The committee said it was worried that detainees were being held for protracted periods with insufficient legal safeguards and without judicial assessment of the justification for their detention.
The U.S. military just announced that four inmates at the Guantanamo detention centre tried to commit suicide on Thursday, and other inmates there attacked guards trying to prevent one man from hanging himself, according to news reports.
"For months, we have been expressing strong concern that the sheer hopelessness of their situation is forcing Guantánamo prisoners to consider taking their lives rather than endure years behind bars without justice or access to the outside world," said Amnesty International in a statement Friday.
"As the U.N. said only yesterday, the U.S. authorities should immediately close down Guantánamo and either release prisoners or bring them before proper courts on the U.S. mainland."
The committee also expressed concern about allegations that the U.S. has established secret prisons, where the International Committee of the Red Cross does not have access to the detainees.
The United States "should ensure that no one is detained in any secret detention facility under its de facto effective control", the report said.
It also said the U.S. "should rescind any interrogation technique including methods involving sexual humiliation, 'water boarding,' 'short shackling' and using dogs to induce fear -- that constitute torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, in all places of detention under its de facto effective control."
Water boarding is a controversial technique in which a subject is made to think he is drowning. Short shackling involves shackling a detainee to a hook in the floor to limit movement.
The U.N. report said some interrogation techniques "have resulted in the death of some detainees during interrogation" and criticised "vague U.S. guidelines" that "have led to serious abuse of detainees".
The panel also said the United States should "cease the rendition of suspects, in particular by its intelligence agencies, to states where they face a real risk of torture". The U.S., it said, "should always ensure that suspects have the possibility to challenge decisions".
The U.S. government's appearance before the U.N. committee earlier this month was the first in six years. U.S. State Department legal adviser John B. Bellinger III, who led the unusually large delegation to the hearing, told the experts that all U.S. officials are "prohibited from engaging in torture at all times and in all places", including where the law of armed conflict applies.
Bellinger said that most of the "regrettable incidents or allegations" of detainee mistreatment had occurred several years ago and that laws, training and monitoring have since been improved.
For years, Bush administration officials have argued that international human rights laws should not constrain the conduct of United States forces. By sending its oversized delegation to Geneva, the administration appeared to be seeking to restore credibility to its record on prisoner treatment by affirming support for the CAT.
There have been about 800 investigations into allegations of mistreatment in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. delegation said. The Defence Department found misconduct and took action against more than 250 service personnel; there have been 103 courts martial and 89 service members were convicted, of whom 19 received sentences of one year or more.
The panel asked the United States to report back within a year with its response to several of its concerns and recommendations. Members also referred to a report by investigators for the European Parliament who claim to have evidence that the CIA has flown 1,000 undeclared flights over Europe since 2001, in some cases transporting terrorist suspects abducted within the European Union to countries known to use torture.
Bellinger asserted that the allegation that those planes carried terror suspects was an "absurd insinuation". He added that in cases where the government has "rendered" prisoners to countries with poor human rights records, it has sought assurances that they will not be tortured.
But the panel wasn't buying the "diplomatic assurances" argument. "The very fact that you are asking for diplomatic assurances means you are in doubt," said Andreas Mavrommatis, chairman of the committee.
Bellinger also defended the U.S. decision not to grant prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq rights under the Geneva Conventions. He said terrorist suspects could pose a threat to security if allowed to meet with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, as stipulated by the Geneva Conventions.
The CAT committee's report is the second U.N. report in recent months. An earlier report by the now-defunct U.N. Commission on Human Rights concluded that U.S. treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees violates their rights to physical and mental health and, in some cases, constitutes torture.
The U.S. recently announced plans to release about a third of those still detained on grounds that they no longer pose a threat to the U.S. and have o further intelligence value. The Pentagon also recently published its first complete list of the detainees' names.
© Copyright 2006 IPS - Inter Press Service