human rights news & views

US & allies resist prohibition on secret detention

At least 57 countries have signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance since it was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December last year.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, says the new treaty articulates limits in the 'war on terror.' Whatever the goal, secret detention is "not acceptable".

Notable by their absence from the list of signatories to date is the US and allies including the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain and Australia.

The US participated in the drafting of the Convention but is now refusing to sign. Last year President Bush admitted to the detention of terror suspects in CIA-run prisons outside the US, in countries such as Yemen and Jordan.

Meanwhile, Australia has legislated to give security officials power to 'disappear' people. The Australian Intelligence Security Organisation (ASIO) may hold suspects and even non-suspects in secret detention for up to a week and force them to answer questions. For three people known to have been thus detained in 2003-4, interrogations lasted a total of nearly 70 hours. Telling anyone about your detention by ASIO, even once it's over, is punishable by further imprisonment. Monitoring the use and abuse of these powers is nigh impossible.

That secret detention may be lawful does not excuse the violation of international human rights law, as the UN Human Rights Committee has pointed out on other occasions. The treaty on disappearances may not yet be law — not until at least 20 nations have taken the next step of ratifying the text — but enforced disappearances committed 'systematically' are a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The international condemnation of Guantánamo Bay is deserved. And there are more such prisons out there, equally 'sinister' and dangerously secret. Amnesty International has called on the USA to:

  • disclose the whereabouts of its secret detention facilities around the world and open them up for scrutiny;
  • disclose the identity and nationality of detainees;
  • take immediate steps to end secret detentions.

And please will the US and all nations sign and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

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