Interview: UN Envoy On Torture Says Concerned About Iran
In the wake of the UN Human Rights Council's recent
session on Iran, RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Javad Kouroshy asked Manfred
Nowak, the UN's special rapporteur on torture, about his attempts to visit
Tehran and his efforts to make governments around the world take better care of
their detainees. Nowak also discussed his hopes of seeing the U.S. prison at
Guantanamo Bay closed.
The United Nations' special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, is concerned
not only about reports of torture, but executions of minors as well.
RFE/RL: During the UN conference on human rights that took place last
month in Geneva, the idea of sending a special UN envoy to Iran was discussed.
Your name was mentioned, as well. So my first question is: can a decision by the
UN be expected soon?
Manfred Nowak: We are actually not talking about a decision by the UN
Human Rights Council, which replaced the [Human Rights] Commission a few years
ago. It really depends on the willingness of the Iranian government to issue a
formal invitation to me.
There were several states in the Human Rights Council which -- within the
framework of the Universal Periodic Review process-- made it very clear that
Iran, with regard to last year's incidents, should invite the UN special
rapporteur on torture. So far, the Iranian government has not followed up on
this proposal, this recommendation. But only recently I had a very positive
conversation with the Iranian ambassador in Vienna, and he supports this
I don't know yet if I will be
able to pay a visit to Iran. Basically, Iran has issued a so-called standing
invitation to all UN special rapporteurs, meaning that in case such an
invitation has been issued by a state, I could address myself to Iran and say
that I accept this general invitation and that I would like to pay a visit to
Iran in, let's say, July or September.
Usually, this works fine. But, as I mentioned before, despite this standing
invitation, Iran only reluctantly issues invitations to UN special rapporteurs.
RFE/RL: Would you accept an invitation?
Nowak: Yes, of course. I already last year repeatedly expressed my
willingness to the Iranian government to accept their standing invitation. I
would be glad to pay a visit to Iran, especially after the elections last year
and different allegations about torture in Iranian prisons; I sent numerous
urgent appeals to the Iranian government.
I have to say that I am really concerned about the situation. These reports were
denied several times, but I think it would be best to conduct our own
investigations on the ground.
RFE/RL: This means that you have been closely following events in Iran,
Nowak: Yes, of course, and not only in Iran but also in other
countries. We are not only talking about the controversies in the aftermath of
the elections, but also about death sentences and the enforcement of these death
sentences. I repeatedly turned to the Iranian government by means of urgent
appeals -- some of them were successful, others not-- regarding executions of
women or adolescent persons, which I consider inhumane.
RFE/RL: You have been monitoring other cases and were tasked with paying visits
to other countries and deliver reports to the UN, too. Were you successful in
effecting change with your reports?
Nowak: Yes, of course. I have just come back from a trip to Jamaica
where cooperation with the government went really well, but conditions of
detention, especially police detention, are dismal. I clearly expressed a
recommendation to shorten police detention terms.
Last year, I was in Uruguay where the government was
very cooperative, as well. We were not confronted with torture, but bad
conditions of detention. Immediately after my visit, the president of Uruguay
ordered the prisons I criticized most to be closed down.
Iran is the world's second-leading executioner.
This means that change does not depend so much on pressure or decisions by the
Human Rights Council in Geneva, but rather on the openness and willingness of
governments to cooperate. By issuing an invitation, the government signals its
interest in how an external observer assesses conditions and what
recommendations I can give. These recommendations are often implemented. I can
provide you with more examples in Georgia, in Jordan, or other states where my
visits and fact-finding missions led to close cooperation with the respective
In such cases, the international community is willing to assist the governments
in implementing my recommendations in the field of development cooperation. They
offer trainings for police staff, sometimes even changes in legislation can be
achieved or new detention facilities with humane conditions are built.
RFE/RL: This implies cooperation with local authorities. According to
your experience, can unhindered investigations be conducted in these countries?
Nowak: This, again, depends on the circumstances. I only accept
invitations when I can be assured that my methods of independent investigation
are duly respected. This means that unannounced visits to all facilities of
detention -- police detention centers, prisons, mental hospitals etc.-- must be
allowed. Furthermore, I must be guaranteed the right to have confidential
conversations, one on one, with all detainees I want to talk with.
Most of the states that issued invitations to me respect my methods of
conducting investigations. Problems can be solved on the spot. I was granted the
right to conduct independent investigations in all states I visited, although in
some states there were efforts made to restrict my scope of action.
Nevertheless, I always managed to draw my own conclusions due to independent
RFE/RL: The Guantanamo detention camp, where suspected Taliban and other
detainees are held in custody, was arguably the most prominent case you
investigated. Could you comment on that, please?
Nowak: Yes, sure. But in this case, I actually did not accept the
invitation of the Bush administration, as the Bush administration was among the
very few governments that did not allow me to have confidential conversations
with detainees in Guantanamo.
We scrupulously interviewed former detainees in England and other states such as
France, instead, to get to know more about the conditions of detention in
Guantanamo. We compared these descriptions with information already available
from the United States, such as instructions issued by former Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld, interrogation methods and so forth.
The evidence from both sides was nearly identical. Therefore, we came to the
conclusion that detention as such was in violation of international law and
human rights, suspects were detained over a long period of time without any
legal action taken. Secondly, individuals were tortured in the course of
interrogations or were treated in an inhumane manner.
For this reason, we first -- by virtue of our status as international experts --
demanded closure of the detention camp in Guantanamo. Newly elected President
[Barack] Obama immediately reacted to our demand on his second day in office
declaring that he intended to close the camp within a year. This, unfortunately,
did not happen.
This is partly due to the fact that the U.S. Congress has put some stumbling
blocks in the way and European and other states are not really willing to
cooperate when it comes to accepting Guantanamo detainees on their territory.
But I am confident that the detention camp will be closed down in the near
RFE/RL: Last question: I assume that governments are not obliged to
implement recommendations or requests put forward in your reports. How would you
assess the impact of your reports on imprisoned individuals?
Nowak: Correct. My recommendations are not legally binding. It depends
on the will of the states to cooperate. If they are truly interested in the
opinion and assessment of an external expert, cooperation can be fruitful. There
are numerous positive examples and I have already mentioned a few: Uruguay (the
best example), Denmark, Indonesia implemented some of our recommendations,
Georgia, Moldova and so forth. China was partly cooperative.
But then, there are other states that do not take our recommendations seriously.
Equatorial Guinea can be used as an extreme example, where we found systematic
torture practiced. The government simply rejected my conclusions and
recommendations. The Bush administration rejected our report as well, but still,
the Obama administration turned its attention to the report again and wants to
close down the Guantanamo detention camp.
Nepal is another positive example where my recommendations were speedily
implemented; the situation of the Nepalese population has significantly
improved. It really depends on the political will of the respective governments
to act on our recommendations.
Copyright (c) 2010 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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