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UN expert calls on States to ensure accountability, transparency and access to sites of secret detention

15 March 2022



GENEVA (15 March 2022) – A UN human rights expert today called on States to ensure that the post 9/11 legacy of secret detention, rendition and torture is not forgotten and its ongoing consequences are tackled head on.

In a report to the Human Rights Council, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, provided an assessment of the 20 years of violence, separation, detention, and trauma experienced by hundreds of men detained in the aftermath of the “war on terror”.

The UN expert said she was particularly concerned about the normalization and expansion of secret detention practices in northeast Syria and Xinjiang, China.

Ní Aoláin addressed the failure of States to implement recommendations from a 2010 joint study, produced by four Special Procedures Mandates on global practices related to secret detention in the context of countering terrorism.

She highlighted the experiences of those rendered to the detention site at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – and stressed that 38 Muslim men continue to be held at this site in conditions which meet the legal threshold for torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under international law.

“Not a single man who was rendered across borders, tortured, arbitrarily detained, separated from family has received an adequate remedy,” Ní Aoláin said. “Many who were returned home continue to live with long-term social and psychological trauma. No-one was held accountable for systematic practices of torture and rendition.”

The Special Rapporteur drew a direct link between the failure to address the legacy and ongoing realities of post 9/11 torture and rendition with contemporary practices of mass arbitrary detention and torture. She stressed the urgency of independent and full access to these sites of detention.

In northeast Syria, she expressed dismay at the continued failure to address pressing human rights concerns in detention sites where thousands of men, women, and children continue to be indefinitely and arbitrarily detained en masse without legal process and experiencing conditions amounting to torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under international law. She called on States to end the practice of sub-contracting mass detention to non-State actors.

In Xinjiang, China, she expressed concern regarding ill-treatment, forced labour, human trafficking and enslavement within the context of secret and arbitrary detention, which has been directed at the Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Ní Aoláin also called for the immediate closure of the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and the mass detention facilities in Xinjiang, China. She urged the immediate return and repatriation of nationals being held in detention in northeast Syria, guided by the principle of non-refoulement as well as the immediate protection of children held in these facilities.

“The scale of human rights violations implicated by the systematic and legalized use of secret detention and torture following the events of 9/11 demand specific individual, State and inter-State accountability,” the UN expert said. “It is imperative to hold individuals, institutions, and States accountable not only to prevent impunity but also as an essential aspect of the guarantee of non-recurrence.”


Ms. Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin (Ireland), the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, took up her functions on 1 August 2017. She is concurrently Regents Professor and Robina Professor of Law, Public Policy and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School and Professor of Law at the Queens University, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact: Ms. Michelle Erazo ([email protected] /+41 22 917 9449).

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 79 444 7578 / [email protected]).

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

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