Header image for news printout


New York, 7 December 2005

The absolute ban on torture, a cornerstone of the international human rights edifice, is becoming a casualty of the so-called “war on terror”, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said today.

"Pursuing security objectives at all costs may create a world in which we are neither safe nor free”, said Louise Arbour, speaking at United Nations headquarters in New York in the run-up to Human Rights Day, commemorated on 10 December. “This will certainly be the case if the only choice is between the terrorists and the torturers".

“Governments are watering down the definition of torture, claiming that terrorism means established rules do not apply anymore”, Mrs. Arbour continued.

Mrs. Arbour said the right and duty of Governments to protect their citizens from attacks was not in dispute. Governments may even impose limitations on certain rights at times of imminent or clear dangers. But, she added, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment may not be subject to any limitation, anywhere, under any condition.

The High Commissioner singled out two practices as having a particularly corrosive effect on the global ban on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment: the recourse to so-called “diplomatic assurances”, and the holding of prisoners in secret detention. “The former may make countries complicit with torture carried out by others, while the latter creates the conditions for torture by one’s own”, she said.

The international legal ban on torture prohibits transferring persons -- no matter what their crime or suspected activity -- to a place where they would be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment. “If there is no risk of torture in a particular case, such assurances are unnecessary and redundant”, Mrs. Arbour said. If there is a risk, the High Commissioner questioned how effective such assurances were likely to be.

Human Rights Day Press Release: Total Ban On Torture Under Attack In "War On Terror" cont…

Mrs. Arbour suggested that instead of seeking to obtain meaningless assurances for the wellbeing of a handful of detainees, efforts should be directed at eliminating the risk of torture faced by many, including by creating a genuine system for monitoring all detainees in all places of detention.

Regarding secret detention the High Commissioner said the phenomenon appeared to have gained renewed currency in the “war on terror”. Holding people in secret detention amounts to "disappearance", which itself amounts to torture or ill-treatment. Prolonged incommunicado detention or detention in secret places facilitates the perpetration of torture. “Whatever the value of the information obtained in secret facilities -- and there is reason to doubt the reliability of intelligence gained through prolonged incommunicado or secret detention -- some standards on the treatment of prisoners cannot be set aside”, she said.

The High Commissioner said she believed firmly in the role of law to guide society through difficult challenges. “The law provides the proper balancing between the legitimate security interests of the State with the individual’s own legitimate interests in liberty and personal security. It must do so rationally and dispassionately, even in the face of terror”.

The High Commissioner called on all Governments to reaffirm their commitment to the absolute prohibition of torture by condemning torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and prohibiting it in national law; abiding by the principle of non-refoulement; refraining from returning persons to countries where they may face torture; ensuring access to prisoners, and abolishing secret detention.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) helps protect and promote all human rights around the world. Headquartered in Geneva, the Office is also present in over 40 countries. OHCHR works to ensure the enforcement of universally recognized human rights norms, including through promoting both the universal ratification and implementation of human rights treaties and respect for the rule of law. It also aims to remove obstacles to the full realization of all human rights and to prevent or stop human rights abuses. For more information please visit www.ohchr.org


For further information, please contact:
José Luis Diaz Praveen Randhawa
Spokesperson Information Officer
Tel: + 41 22 917 9242 Tel: +41 22 917 9602
E-mail: jdiaz@ohchr.org E-mail: prandhawa@ohchr.org