US fights shy of UN torture protocol
NEW YORK - The United States, which is critical of human rights violations by Third World nations who are not its political or military allies, has always expressed reservations about prison visits by international human rights officials.

In 1998, Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, was barred from visiting three Michigan prisons to probe sexual misconduct against women prisoners.

Although she had made extensive preparations to interview inmates at three prisons, the Governor of Michigan John Engler barred Coomaraswamy on the eve of her visit.

Senator Jesse Helms, former chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blocked a proposed prison visit by Bacre Waly Ndiaye, head of the UN Human Rights Office in New York, who was planning to observe living conditions in American penitentiaries.

Last week the United States refused once again to change its policy - but failed in its attempt to block the passage of a resolution that calls for an amendment to a UN convention against torture in order to establish an international system of prison inspections.

Formally called the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture, the amendment will obligate countries that ratify the new treaty to permit prison visits by international human rights officials.

The US opposition to the protocol was based on the ground that prison visits by any international body would be too intrusive, is against the country's State and federal laws, and violates certain provisions of the American constitution.

The objective of the amendment, according to article 1 of the Optional Protocol, is to establish "a system of regular visits undertaken by independent international and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty, in order to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".

If Sri Lanka ratifies this treaty, which will eventually be adopted by the General Assembly late this year, the government will have to open up its prisons for visits by UN officials and human rights organisations.

Finalised in January this year after 10 years of protracted negotiations, the Optional Protocol was adopted by the 54-member Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the UN's governing body for human rights.

But in an unholy alliance of member states, the United States had the support of several countries which it considers "terrorist states", including Cuba, Iran, Libya and Sudan, along with other member states such as Australia, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Japan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia and Uganda.

All of these countries unsuccessfully voted for a US amendment that would have reopened negotiations on the agreed protocol virtually killing it in the process.

The protocol was backed by a coalition of 13 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Association for the Prevention of Torture, the International Commission of Jurists, World Organisation Against Torture and the International League for Human Rights.

Although the UN Convention Against Torture came into force in 1987, however, torture and other ill-treatment are still widespread.

According to the 2002 annual report of Human Rights Watch (HRW), prisoners were tortured or ill treated by security forces, police or other state authorities in more than 110 countries.

Although the United States has said it does not condone torture, the terrorist attacks last year have generated a theoretical discussion on whether torture should be considered a legitimate form of interrogation.

The debate was sparked by an article in Newsweek magazine titled 'Time to Think About Torture.'

"In this autumn of anger," wrote columnist Jonathan Alter, "even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to..... torture."

On the Fox News Channel last year, one of the anchormen posed the rhetorical question: "Should law enforcement be allowed to do anything - even terrible things - to make suspects spill the beans?".

In January this year, several human rights groups called for inspection visits of Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners who were being held in the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Only the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) was permitted.

In a position paper released last week, the NGO coalition said "the concept of visits without prior consent is not unique in this Optional Protocol. It follows modern approaches to prevent serious violations of fundamental norms of international law." Under the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture, all states are under an obligation to accept missions and visits to places of detention by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture.

Under Article 143 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, states grant delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or the "protecting power" access to all places where prisoners are kept or detained.

And under Article 126 of the Third Geneva Convention, the same obligation applies with regard to visits to prisoners of war.

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