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Arbitrary detention

Expert: sustained detention is a "dark stain on our collective conscience"

27 April 2022

Protesters stand before a building, wearing orange jumpsuits and holding placards.

"We should all feel profoundly troubled by the ongoing reality of sustained arbitrary detention and torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that have continued since 2001," said Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

"These are all dark stains on our collective conscience. Sites of collective mass arbitrary detention and torture simply should not exist and are not acceptable."

Ní Aoláin was speaking at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, where she presented a report about global practices on secret detention in the years following the events of September 11, 2001, and the transfer of detainees to the detention site at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The ongoing detention of 38 men at Guantanamo Bay, in conditions that meet the threshold for torture, inhuman and degrading treatment under international law, and the failure to address accountability for the torture and renditions of hundreds of others demands action, the report said. Not a single individual rendered or tortured in the so-called "war of terror" received a complete and adequate legal remedy.

Failure to implement recommendations of a 2010 joint study to end extensive human rights violations that were normalised in the name of ‘fighting terrorism’ has enabled ongoing human rights violations in multiple states, the report said, "with tragic and profound consequences for individuals who were systematically, tortured, rendered across borders, arbitrarily detained, and deprived of their most fundamental rights."

Arbitrary detention of ethnic Uighurs

The special rapporteur highlighted two specific examples, namely in China and in the Syrian Arab Republic, of contemporary practices of "mass arbitrary detention and torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment."

"This Report further identifies grave concerns about practices of arbitrary mass and secret detention with other serious violations of international law directed at the Uighurs and other ethnic groups in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region," Ní Aoláin said.

"Justified under the banner of ´re-education´, we have found that these detention practices impinge on the most fundamental of rights, including the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of liberty; the right to respect for family life, including the prohibition of forced separation; and the rights to freedom of expression, association and religion or belief, as well as other cultural, economic, and social rights," she said.

"Human rights black hole"

On Syria, Ní Aoláin mentioned the plight of thousands of men, women and children being held in a situation of mass arbitrary detention in northeast Syria, a case the report describes as "a human rights black hole."

Since 2019, there are approximately 10,000 men and 750 boys, some as young as nine, detained for alleged association to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in detention centres throughout northeast Syria, mostly converted schools and hospitals, the report said.

"No humane or decent society should accept leaving their children in a situation of cradle to grave arbitrary detention," Ní Aoláin told the Council.

This Report draws a clear and sustained line between the torture and extraordinary rendition that accompanied the so-called ‘war on terror’ to contemporary practices of mass arbitrary detention and torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in Xinjiang China and northeast Syria

Ní Aoláin also addressed the situation of the 38 remaining Muslim men held at Guantanamo Bay, describing it as "ongoing violations of international law."

"Many of these men are entering their twentieth year in the custody of the United States. Many of the men are torture survivors," she said.

In her report, the special rapporteur also expressed concern about the evolution of ‘secret’ detention practices into practices of assurances and formally legal transfer which by-pass fundamental human rights protection.

"I am particularly concerned at the scale and consequences of such practices involving the Russian Federation and countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States," she said.

Furthermore, the report highlighted the consequences of counter-terrorism measures on the rights of women, girls, and families.

Families of persons detained, disappeared, tortured, and imprisoned for years without trial have experienced unending violations of their right to family and intimate life, practices which should not be tolerated by civilized societies, it said. 

Ní Aoláin stressed the need to provide adequate remedy and rehabilitation to individuals and their families who have been subject to extraordinary rendition and torture, adding that "there is no statute of limitations on these grave violations of international law."

The special rapporteur also pointed out that 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.

Finally, Ní Aoláin made an appeal to states to make such detention sites fully accessible to independent human rights oversight in order to assess the harms experienced within them.

"It is precisely the lack of access, transparency, accountability and remedy that has enabled and sustained a permissive environment for contemporary large-scale detention and harm to individuals," she said.