Newsday: “UN Divided Over Anti-Torture Pact”

November 27, 1984

November 27, 1984
pp. 4, 25

Instruments reportedly used to torture victims have varied from simple belts, sticks or whips to more sophisticated devices such as the Black Slave: strapping the seated victim onto an apparatus, which when switched on inserts a heated metal skewer into the anus . . .

                                                 — Amnesty International, “Torture in the ’80s”


Newsday UN Bureau


UNITED NATIONS Every country condemns torture but it is reportedly practiced in nearly half o them, sometimes on a grand scale.

During the past two weeks, delegate after delegate in a UN committee has expressed his country’s abhorrence of torture. Yet a proposed international convention against the practice, with more teeth than any existing human rights instrument, has met strong opposition from many of those same countries.

“Torture is an unpolitical issue,” said Dutch delegate Alphons Hamer. “Everyone says they’re against torture. But when it comes down to it, everyone finds procedural arguments for not doing anything about it.”

The most recent Amnesty International report on torture, published last spring, singles out 66 nations, representing every region of the world and every political stripe, in which torture was reliably reported to be a pattern of behavior among or toward some elements within society in the early 1980s.

The report vividly describes some of the more appalling methods of extracting confessions from tight-lipped prisoners: hanging them upside down, beating them severely, burning sensitive parts of their bodies with cigarettes, applying heavy rollers to their legs until they break, using electric shock, staging mock executions, abusing them sexually, exposing them to jets of icy water, twisting their feet and nipples, tearing their hair, squeezing their genitals, rhythmically beating the soles of their feet, lucking hairs, extracting fingernails and forcing them to sit on bottlenecks.

It took the 43-national Human Rights Commission in Geneva seven years to draft the convention’s 32 brief articles.

Even after all that time and all the compromising, two of its key provisions the ones with the teeth were not agreed upon before the draft was sent on to New York for the General Assembly to consider. Its 39th session ends at Christmas.

On Friday, a resolution calling for adoption of the draft, including the disputed paragraphs, was introduced in the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee, where voting on resolutions was to begin next week.

The provisions causing the trouble are in Articles 19 and 20. They call for an independent committee of 10 experts to investigate allegations of torture and possibly visit countries accused of violations. Investigations would be confidential but conclusions could later be made public.

But the Soviet Union, India and Algeria, for example, who say they would otherwise be inclined to give full support to a torture convention, object to the committee’s ability to act on information from any source including the western media.

The Soviets further express concern that the committee could become politically weighted against them. Israeli officials tend to share that fear, saying the convention could become just another political attack should Jerusalem become a party to the convention. Iraq has said some of the disputed material interferes with the internal affairs of a sovereign state.

“What is preferable?” asked Richard Schifter, an alternate U.S. representative at the UN. “To have that risk taken of a certain amount of publicity, some perhaps ot fully justified, or to allow torture to continue without any international organization paying attention?”

Opposition to an international convention against torture is tricky. No country wants to be on record as opposing such landmark international legislation. But many would not be displeased to see this draft shipped back to Geneva to languish in the working group a few more years.

Argentina, since the departure of the military junta last December, is one country that has done an about-face on the proposed convention. The junta period, notorious for is detenidos-desaparecidos, (disappeared ones) was well documented in the Amnesty International report.

And, during that time, as a member of the Geneva Human Rights Commission, Argentina actively opposed the more controversial elements of the draft convention, particularly an article on universal jurisdiction that would bind ratifying nations to arrest and extradite torturers anywhere in the world.

But, since the elections of President Raul Alfonsin, the Argentinians not only have become supporters of the Geneva draft they are one of the resolution’s foremost cosponsors and have championed it among Latin American nations.

“Every country needs to reach a point where they need these sorts of instruments,” an Argentine delegate said of the draft. “We want it as an international safeguard. If we have an accident, we want this committee to come. Of, if a torturer gets out of Argentina, we want him tried.”

India’s support for the convention would have been pivotal to widespread acceptance because of its respected leadership role in the nonaligned movement.

But India wants changes in the current draft and has proposed the disputed paragraphs be made optional, something supporters have not been willing to concede.

Officials explain the concern of many developing countries, but only privately.

“Human rights is basically a western concept,” one said. “It is not really fair to improve human rights from the western concept, from the standpoint of western values. Human rights, as yet, for many developing countries is an abstraction. The immediate problem for them is starvation, homelessness. For them, those are the aspects of human rights that need attention straight away.

“What is the issue [with the draft’? It says information will be received and a confidential inquiry will be conducted. Information from whom? The western media? A television program? Would that trigger an international mechanism?”

India was one of the nations cited in the Amnesty International report for reports of widespread ill-treatment and torture of prisoners.

In committee on Friday, India called for convention to be adopted by consensus, not by vote. Since there is no consensus on the current draft, the call was tantamount to a rejection without ever having to say no.

The Soviet Union then offered its support for India’s statement, again, effectively saying no to the Geneva draft.

“As prepared,” a Soviet delegate explained, the convention “is not ideal.” He said the disputed paragraph in Articles 19 and 20 are a bit in contradiction to the UN Charter and need to “be worked out more profoundly.”

“For us,” he said, “these provisions aren’t teeth. You can’t eliminate torture. We are adamantly against these procedures because we are sure they will be used for political purposes.”

“We are against politicization, but we are in favor of the convention,” he said.

Western observers say the Soviet Union has a better record than many countries on the issue of torture, though it is cited in the Amnesty report for ill-treatment in Soviet corrective labor institutions and prisons.

At the same time, the westerns say, it is difficult for the Soviets to support these kinds of instruments because they can indeed be used politically against them.

At the same time, the westerners say, it is difficult for the Soviets to support these kinds of instruments because they can indeed be used politically against them.

“Yet,” one westerner observed, “the Soviet Union supports having UN rapporteurs who can report on human rights violations in Chile. Why? Because it can be used politically against the United States.”

There is another fundamental problem for Moscow. For years, the Soviets have opposed making the individual the subject of international law. The West believes that when it comes to international law on human rights, the individual is necessarily the subject.

Many countries, especially those in the Mideast and Africa, where reports of torture have been more frequent have been sitting on the fence during the debate, waiting to see how the issues shakes down. Some Islamic countries have expressed concern that the convention not be at odds with punishment allowable under Islamic law. Supporters maintain it is not.

Besides the Netherlands and Argentina, the other cosponsors of the draft convention are Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, Gambia, Norway, Samoa, Sweden, Bolivia and Columbia, the last two also cited in the Amnesty International torture report.

The United States, while not a sponsor, supports the draft convention fully, as do the Western Europeans and a number of Latin American nations.

When the voting in committee starts, one of several things could happen: The cosponsors could push the proposed convention to a vote. Opponents could introduce what is called a procedural motion to, say, send the draft back to Geneva with amendments, and thus avoid having to register a “no” vote to the convention itself. The resolution could come up at the last minute, too late for discussion, and be put off till next year. Or, it could be adopted by consensus. Passage by consensus or a positive vote would send the convention to the General Assembly.

Thus far, supporters, such as the resolution’s chief sponsor The Netherlands, have not been willing to concede that the disputed paragraphs can be altered or made optional. To do this, they say, would make the convention little stronger than existing human rights conventions.

They also are trying hard to avoid a postponement or procedural maneuver. The result of either, they say, would be one or many more years without international machinery to combat one of the world’s great human rights anachronisms.

They are likely to push for a vote, to get the convention on the books now, even if it means scores of countries abstain or reject it outright, even if it means only a limited number of countries would be prepared to ratify it anytime soon.

Experts explain that anytime soon, in the international context, means up to the end of the century. Because such instruments count in international law, ratification procedures can be arduous, especially in countries with independent legislatures.