The U.S.-led fight against terrorism is eroding the time-honored international prohibition of torture and other forms of cruel or degrading treatment of prisoners, the top U.N. human rights official said Wednesday in a statement commemorating Human Rights Day.
Louise Arbour, the high commissioner for human rights at the United Nations, presented the most forceful criticism to date of U.S. detention policies by a senior U.N. official, asserting that holding suspects incommunicado in itself amounts to torture.
She also expressed concern in a news conference with efforts by some U.S. policymakers to exempt CIA interrogators from elements of the U.N. Convention Against Torture. Vice President Cheney's office has sought to block efforts by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other lawmakers to subject CIA personnel from the 1984 convention's ban on the use of cruel or degrading treatment of detainees.
But sources on Capitol Hill said yesterday that the administration is backing down on its opposition to the proposed legislation, after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Ukraine that U.S. personnel are prohibited from violating the U.N. Convention on Torture while overseas. The administration has previously said the agreement does not apply abroad.
Arbour's statement said that the "absolute ban on torture, a cornerstone of the international human rights edifice, is under attack. The principle once believed to be unassailable -- the inherent right to physical integrity and dignity of person -- is becoming a casualty of the so-called 'war on terrorism.' "
John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, criticized Arbour, calling it "inappropriate" for her to choose a Human Rights Day celebration to criticize the United States instead of such rights abusers as Burma, Cuba and Zimbabwe. He also warned that it would undercut his efforts to negotiate formation of a new human rights council that would exclude countries with bad rights records.
"Today is Human Rights Day. It would be appropriate, I think, for the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights to talk about the serious human rights problems that exist in the world today," Bolton told reporters. "It is disappointing that she has chosen to talk about press commentary about alleged American conduct. I think the secretary of state has fully and completely addressed the substance of the allegations, so I won't go back into that again other than to reaffirm that the United States does not engage in torture."
He added: "I think 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."
Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court justice, did not name the United States in her statement. But she criticized two elements of U.S. counterterrorism policy: the use of severe interrogation techniques -- which the CIA has authorized -- and the rendition, or transfer, of suspected terrorists to countries that have engaged in torture.
She also questioned the value of the U.S. practice of obtaining diplomatic assurances from governments that they will not torture such individuals. "There are many reasons to be skeptical about the value of those assurances," she said. "If there is no risk of torture in a particular case, they are unnecessary and redundant. If there is a risk, how effective are these assurances likely to be?"
Arbour said that "moves to water down or question the absolute ban on torture, as well as on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" are "particularly insidious." She added that "governments in a number of countries are claiming that established rules do not apply anymore: that we live in a changed world and that there is a 'new normal.' "
Staff writer Josh White in Washington contributed to this report.