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HUMAN RIGHTS: UN Committee Comes Down Hard on US Government

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Jul 28 2006 (IPS) - In a strongly worded report, the U.N. Human Rights Committee called on the U.S. government to close down any “secret detention” facilities it operates around the world, and expressed concern about a number of issues, both domestic and international.

The Committee, made up of 18 independent members, urged authorities in Washington to carry out prompt investigations of suspicious deaths and torture in which either contract employees or senior military officers have been implicated at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba, Afghanistan or Iraq.

The Committee had already slammed the government of George W. Bush this year for alleged violations of the International Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, whose implementation it oversees.

The report released Friday had an even greater impact given the Committee’s reputation, among human rights groups, as a conservative, overly-cautious body.

This time, however, the Committee’s recommendations and demands “reflect a growing international consensus that the U.S. is violating basic human rights norms,” said the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

One of the criticisms issued by the Committee refers to a long-standing discrepancy with U.S. authorities: the view that human rights treaty obligations do not apply to persons detained outside of the United States.

For example, the Committee rebuked the U.S. government for failing to apply the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to individuals under its jurisdiction, but detained outside of U.S. territory.

The chair of the Committee, French magistrate Christine Chanet, noted that the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and more recently the U.S. Supreme Court, had clarified the applicability of international law in all territory under U.S. control.

However, U.S. State Department legal adviser John Bellinger said in a statement that “We can understand the Committee’s desire to have the Convention apply outside the territory of a State Party but we must accept the Convention the way it was written, not the way the Committee wishes it to be.”

There are similar discrepancies regarding another of the Committee’s recommendations: the call for the U.S. government to immediately close all secret detention centres and allow prompt access by the International Committee of the Red Cross to all detainees.

Another Committee member, Ivan Shearer of Australia, said the U.S. delegation “did not admit that such places existed. But we have said it because we have reliable information that there are such places. We called upon the United States to desist these practises.”

“The secret places may be a jail in a foreign country, a cargo container, they could be anything,” he stated.

But “The United States did not directly address these questions because in their view they fall outside the scope of the Covenant (on Civil and Political Rights) and therefore outside the scope of the Committee,” he added.

Chanet said the Committee’s recommendations focus on practices like the death penalty, torture, detention and deportation, all of which have given rise to serious concern.

One of the Committee’s concerns involved immigration. It complained that it had not received sufficient information from the United States on the measures to be adopted with respect to the nine million undocumented immigrants currently living in that country.

Although it said it had taken note of information provided by the U.S. mission indicating that National Guard troops posted along the Mexican-U.S. border would not take part in law enforcement or carry out arrests of undocumented migrants, the Committee expressed concern at the increase in the militarisation of the border and the construction of new fences and walls.

But the U.S. delegation declared that the Committee had lost “perspective and credibility” by spending more time criticising the United States than countries like North Korea where civil and political rights are not respected.

For example, it noted that the recommendations on North Korea were about half the length of those issued for the United States.

Philip Grant, head of the Switzerland-based non-governmental organisation Trial, told IPS that he was pleased with the Committee’s report on the United States.

In particular, Grant stressed the demand that the United States apply the Covenant during times of war as well as peace-time, and both within and outside of its territory.

He also noted the call to revise U.S. military manuals, in order to prohibit interrogation techniques that run counter to international law, and to prosecute anyone who uses or authorises such methods.

“The U.N. Committee clearly rejected the Bush administration’s claim that it isn’t violating the U.N. treaty on civil and political rights when it acts beyond its own borders,” said Alison Parker, acting director of the U.S. Programme at Human Rights Watch. “If U.S. agents deliver detainees to countries where they face torture or keep people in secret prisons, they are violating fundamental human rights.”

For his part, Shearer said he did not think Washington would ignore the Committee’s recommendations, and underlined that the lengthy hearings in Geneva with the U.S. delegation were “not a confrontation or angry exchange.”

“We call on the U.S. to respond in one year” to the recommendations, said the Australian expert, who added that “I would expect them to do so.”

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