Global Policy Forum

UN Expert Faults US on Human Rights in Terror Laws


By Evelyn Leopold

May 26, 2007

The United States apparently violated international law in its military tribunals by using coercion to extract confessions and writing counter-terrorism laws that restrict immigration on questionable grounds, a U.N. investigator said on Friday. But Martin Scheinin of Finland, a U.N. rapporteur on rights in countering terrorism, said his findings for the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council did not mean "the United States has become an enemy of human rights."

"It is a country which still has a great deal to be proud of," especially in exercising freedom of the press, Scheinin said in a 12-page preliminary report on a 10-day visit to the United States. His full report will be presented to the Council later in the year. But U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad rejected the allegations, saying, "We have a different point of view."

"We are doing this under U.S. laws and procedures and legitimate decision-making authorities that exist in the United States," he said. "We are a rule of law country and our decisions are based on the rule of law."

Scheinin spoke to officials from departments of Homeland Security, Defense and Justice, members of Congress, academics and nongovernmental groups. But he did not go to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, because he was not allowed to interview prisoners in privacy. Still, he said reports that information was obtained from terror suspects using "enhanced interrogation techniques" amounted to a form of torture or inhumane treatment that is illegal under international law, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights treaty the United States signed.

His report said the prisoners detained by the military at Guantanamo had been categorized by the United States as alien "unlawful enemy combatants," which Scheinin called a "description of convenience" since there is no such category under international law. They are either combatants to be released at the end of a conflict as prisoners of war, or people who have to be charged with war crimes and prosecuted accordingly, usually in civilian courts, he said. In Guantanamo, he said, even an acquittal by a military commission "does not result in a right of release."

"This further undermines the principles of fair trial and would, if immediate release was not provided in an individual case, involve an arbitrary detention in contravention" of the treaty, he said. Scheinin also criticized several U.S. laws, including the 2001 Patriot Act, enacted by Congress after the September 11 attacks on the United States, for expanding the definition of terrorist acts "beyond the bounds of conduct which is truly terrorist," and tightening immigration restrictions based on the expanded definitions.

Scheinin said his visit supported suspicions that the CIA has flown terrorism suspects from Afghanistan or Iraq to countries where they could face abuse and torture under "extraordinary rendition."

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