The top U.N. human rights official has warned that U.S. tactics in the war on terrorism could erode international standards on treatment of prisoners. The comments prompted a sharp rebuke from the U.S. ambassador.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour voiced concern Wednesday that new initiatives used in fighting terrorism would undermine the global ban on torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Ms. Arbour did not directly accuse any country of violating laws. She emphasized that her comments were based mostly on what she had read in press accounts. But she singled out for criticism two practices the United States has been accused of: operating secret detention facilities and sending prisoners to countries where they might face torture.
"I'm very concerned about assertions in some sectors of U.S. policy that there are in fact exceptions, or that there should be exceptions to recourse to torture," she said. "For instance, that we should carve out a normative sphere of activities where the CIA should be exempted from that prohibition, and in my view it runs completely against all the progress made so far and the current state of international customary law. Unless there would be an act of Congress validated by a judgment of the U.S. Supreme Court, I would have to assume that as the law now stands, it would be an illegal practice."
Ms. Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court justice, also questioned statements made this week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the United States forbids its personnel to engage in inhumane acts, either inside the country or abroad. "My understanding from press accounts is that she has said the United States does not practice or condone torture. We don't send people to places where we know they will be tortured. In my view, that's not exactly the standard, the standard under the convention is the anticipation of the risk of torture," she said.
The U.N. official's comments drew an immediate response from U.S. Ambassador John Bolton. He said he was disappointed that Ms. Arbour had chosen to speak based on press commentary about alleged American conduct. "I think the secretary of state has fully and completely addressed the substance of allegations. I won't go back again other than to reaffirm that the U.S. does not engage in torture, but it is inappropriate and illegitimate for an international civil servant to second guess the conduct that we're engaged in in the war on terror with nothing more as evidence than what she reads in the newspapers," he said.
Ambassaodor Bolton took strong exception to comments by Ms. Arbour that allegations of prisoner mistreatment had damaged the United States's moral leadership. He called the comment "illegitimate," and suggested that Ms. Arbour had damaged international efforts to reform the discredited U.N. Human Rights Commission.
"The United States in New York is engaged in a very difficult struggle to reform the broken the U.N. human rights decision making machinery, to abolish the existing human rights commission and try and replace it with an effective new Human Rights council. We are not helped in that difficult struggle by comments like Ms. Arbour's, and I say this really in sorrow rather than anger."
U.N. diplomats say negotiations on establishing a new Human Rights Council by the end of this month are encountering difficulties. In an attempt to pressure the 191-member body to speed up the reform process, Ambassador Bolton has suggested withholding full approval of the next two-year budget. That proposal, however, has encountered stiff opposition from other countries. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the idea "unworkable."