The United States fended off tough questions by a panel of human rights experts regarding its war on terrorism. During the past two days, the U.N. Human Rights Committee examined numerous issues ranging from U.S. treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to domestic concerns. The committee is trying to determine if the United States is fulfilling its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The 18-member committee of independent experts got right to the point. They questioned the U.S. delegation about a variety of controversial issues, including alleged places of secret detention, about the treatment of hundreds of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, and about reports that the United States used torture.
An expert from Great Britain and former Special U.N. Investigator on Torture, Nigel Rodley was eager to find out whether terror suspects were being kept in secret detention centers. He said he could not accept the argument that the United States was not able to comment on intelligence operations.
"If there is any implication that secret detention ... and prolonged incommunicado detention are not happening, I find it hard to credit, or I would not understand why the International Committee of the Red Cross is seeking access to secret detainees who do not exist," Rodley says. "So, let us assume that they exist. The response seems to be saying that anybody detained is not going to be subject to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment. And so, it seems to imply that secret prolonged incommunicado detention does not violate the prohibition on torture."
Rodley's observations elicited a strong response from the U.S. delegation leader, Matthew Waxman. He said attacks by the al-Qaida terrorist network pose a new kind of threat. Although it presented tough legal challenges, he said the United States believed the fight against terrorism had to be done within the rule of law.
He pointedly disagreed with the suggestion that indefinite detention was inherently inhumane.
"We are relying on the traditional rule in warfare, which is that enemy fighters can be held until the end of the conflict," Waxman says. "The purpose of this rule is obvious - to prevent them from returning to the battlefield. It is true that in any war, captured prisoners are uncertain when they will be released because during the course of the war, it is never clear how long it will last. Second, having said that, the United States also recognizes that this is a unique kind of war. And, we also do not want to be in a position of holding anyone longer than necessary."
Waxman said Washington had gone to great lengths to develop review procedures to examine each detainee case in Guantanamo and elsewhere. He said the United States is actively seeking to release or transfer detainees to their home countries. But, only if it gets assurances they will receive humane treatment on their return.
The United States was also questioned on a wide range of domestic issues, including prisoner treatment, racial profiling, immigration, the death penalty, and the practice of sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
The U.N. Human Rights Committee will issue its final observations and recommendations at the end of the month.