U.N. Human Rights Chief Criticizes Handling of Detainees

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009; 5:14 PM

UNITED NATIONS, June 24 -- The U.N.'s top human rights advocate, Navanethem Pillay, on Wednesday appealed to the Obama administration to release Guantanamo Bay inmates or try them in a court of law, and said that officials who authorized the use of torture must be held accountable for their crimes.

In her most detailed statement on U.S. detention policy, the South African lawyer criticized President Obama's decision to hold some suspected terrorists in detention indefinitely without a trial. She also called for a probe into officials who participated in torture sessions or provided the legal justification for it.

"People who order or inflict torture cannot be exonerated, and the roles of certain lawyers, as well as doctors who have attended torture sessions, should also be scrutinized," Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement dedicated to victims of torture.

Pillay praised the Obama administration for committing to ban many of the harshest interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, authorized by the Bush administration, and "which amount to torture." But she said it needed to go further, providing victims of U.S. abuses with an opportunity to rebuild their lives.

"I believe we are finally starting to turn the page on this extremely unfortunate chapter of recent history, with counter-terrorism measures starting to move back in to line with international human rights standards," Pillay said. "But there is still much to do before the Guantanamo chapter is truly brought to a close."

The United States responded by highlighting the steps the administration has taken on human rights. "The Obama Administration has taken aggressive action on this issue from day one, upholding our nation's fundamental values while making the American people safer," said Mark Kornblau, spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations. "The President banned the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, initiated a review of all pending cases at Guantanamo, and ordered that facility closed within one year."

Pillay's remarks represented the clearest challenge by the U.N.'s high commissioner to Obama's decision to limit investigation into past abuses and to continue to hold some detainees who have not been charged with a crime. In May, Obama said some detainees deemed too dangerous to release might have to be held indefinitely.

"There should be no half-measures, or new creative ways to treat people as criminals when they have not been found guilty of any crime," Pillay said. "Guantanamo showed that torture and unlawful forms of detention can all too easily creep back in to practice during times of stress, and there is still a long way to go before the moral high ground lost since 9/11 can be fully reclaimed."

Pillay stopped short of addressing the Obama administration's decision to use reformed military commissions to try suspected terrorists. Human rights groups have criticized the commissions, expressing particular concern that terror suspects could be convicted and put to death on the basis of evidence obtained by torture.

Pillay said that detainees who are not prosecuted and potentially face torture if they are sent back to their own countries "must be given a new home, where they can start to build a new life, in the United States or elsewhere. I welcome the fact that in recent weeks a number of countries have agreed to take in a few people in this position, and urge others to follow suit, including first and foremost the United States itself."

Earlier this month, the Obama administration flew the first Guantanamo detainee, Ahmed Ghailani, to the United States to face capital charges for his alleged role in the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. But an overwhelming majority of Republican and Democratic lawmakers have fiercely resisted allowing any more of the remaining 229 detainees at Guantanamo into the United States.

In May, the Senate voted 90 to 6 to withhold funding for the closure of Guantanamo. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said this month that the president, in authorizing the transfer of Ghailani, was ignoring the "clear desire of Congress and the American people that these terrorists not be brought to the United States." McConnell also questioned whether Obama has the authority to transfer detainees, saying, "there's an argument that existing law prohibits bringing terrorists into the United States."

Pillay offered a withering rebuke of the Bush administration counterterrorism policies, charging that they had undermined international efforts to end torture. "The terrorist acts that shook the world on 11 September 2001 had a devastating impact on the fight to eliminate torture," she wrote. "Some states that had previously been careful not to practice or condone torture became less scrupulous."

"The Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prisons, in particular, became high-profile symbols of this regression, and new terms such as "water-boarding" and "rendition" entered the public discourse, as human rights lawyers and advocates looked on in dismay," she added.

Pillay said that "leadership is required to end this grotesque practice." She welcomed Obama's decision, days after he was sworn in, to commit to closing Guantanamo by next January and to ban waterboarding and other extreme interrogation techniques.

"Equally importantly, victims of torture must be helped to recover from one of the worst ordeals that a human being can face. The physical and mental scars of torture are excruciating, the effect on families devastating, and there are often long-term socio-economic effects, including a stigma that can be extremely hard to erase. Victims of torture must be compensated and cared for -- for as long as it takes to enable them once again to lead a relatively normal life."

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