U.N. Report on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

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U.N. Report on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment


By: Nigel S. Rodley

Date: January 9, 1996

Source: Rodley, Nigel S. "U.N. Report on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment." United Nations Economic and Social Council, January 9, 1996.

About the Author: Sir Nigel S. Rodley, a citizen of the United Kingdom, served as Special Rapporteur on Torture for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights from 1993 to 2001. The job of the Special Rapporteur is to gather information about torture practices in various countries.


The United Nations has several ways of monitoring the occurrence of torture worldwide. One is the Special Rapporteur on Torture, an agent of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (CHR). The Special Rapporteur issues yearly reports on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment around the world. Nations criticized in the reports are requested to respond officially. The Rapporteur may then issue a second report or addendum commenting on the responses received and making further recommendations or requesting more information. The 1996 report excerpted here, "Question of the Human Rights of All Persons Subjected to Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, In Particular: Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment," reviewed torture and other illegal practices in sixty-nine countries, including the United States.

In 1996, the Rapporteur's concerns with U.S. practice were primarily to do with the treatment of prisoners by police forces and prison systems. Specifically, the Rapporteur expressed concern that prisoners were held in positions that put them at risk of suffocating and that maximum-security conditions were excessively harsh or inhuman.


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


From the viewpoint of later years, the remarkable thing about the 1996 report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture is that its concerns with U.S. treatment of prisoners were so few and minor. In his follow-up addendum ("Summary of communications transmitted to Governments and replies received," January 16, 1996), the Rapporteur described a handful of individual cases of suffocation and torture in police custody, all of which the United States agreed were illegal and in many of which the responsible officers had already been prosecuted. The United States responded with detailed legal arguments to criticisms of the conditions in maximum-security jails, arguing that these conditions did not constitute treatment forbidden by the U.S. Constitution or treaty law. The Rapporteur did not comment on the merit of these arguments. The Rapporteur's 1998 Report on Torture raised similar issues (the United States was not reviewed in the 1997 report) and added that it was concerned about the use of tasers or electric stun-guns against suspects (tasers had killed over 150 persons in the United States from 2001 to 2005).

A decade later, the situation had changed dramatically. The permissibility of torture was being openly debated in U.S. media and government circles, and in its second four-year report to the U.N. Committee Against Torture (due, 1999; delivered, 2005), required by the U.N. Convention on Torture, the United States found it necessary to defend itself against the charge that it tortured prisoners or sent them to countries where they were likely to be tortured (a practice known as "special rendition"). The United States stated in this 2005 document that "The United States is unequivocally opposed to the use and practice of torture. No circumstance whatsoever, including war, the threat of war, internal political instability, public emergency, or an order from a superior officer or public authority, may be invoked as a justification for or defense to committing torture" (U.N. document CAT/C/48/Add.3, p. 4).

At the same time, however, high officials of the U.S. government were apparently advocating the view that torture is legal under certain circumstances. In 2002, a memo was drafted by the Justice Department holding that the President can authorize agents of the U.S. government to violate anti-torture laws and treaties in the name of national security. In January 2005, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that the Administration held that anti-torture law did not restrain U.S. interrogators overseas (e.g., at Guantanamo) because the U.S. Constitution does not apply outside the borders of the United States. In 2005, when the U.S. Senate was considering an amendment by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to the Defense Department Authorization Bill that would ban torture and inhuman treatment by all U.S. agents, even overseas, Vice President Dick Cheney lobbied members of the Senate to exempt agents of the Central Intelligence Agency from the amendment. (The exemption was not granted.) The amendment passed 90-9, but when President George W. Bush signed the bill he issued a "signing statement" indicating that he believed he could ignore the bill whenever he deemed that national security was at stake. The U.N. Commission Against Torture has demanded explanations from the United States (due to be delivered at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland in May 2006) of its practices and of its various statements that appear to defend the use of torture.

Moreover, starting in 2002, allegations were made by groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Committee of the Red Cross that the United States was practicing torture and inhuman treatment at facilities in Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights appointed a task force to study the situation of detainees in Guantanamo starting in June 2004. The task force included the Special Rapporteur on Torture.

In February, 2006, the team's report was released. It accused the United States of systematically inflicting both torture and "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" (also forbidden by law) on prisoners held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba. The report found that excessive solitary confinement, exposure to extreme heat and cold, exposure to painfully loud noise and painfully bright light, forced shaving and other techniques designed to humiliate, and force-feeding of hunger strikers through violently inserted and removed nasal tubes amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment and, in some cases, torture.

The U.S. government stated that prisoner testimony received by the envoys was false or exaggerated. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that "Al Qaeda is trained in trying to make wild accusations" and reiterated that "we do not condone torture, and we do not engage in torture."

The Rapporteur's regular annual reports after 2001 have borne little resemblance, at least regarding the United States, to those of the mid-1990s. Domestic U.S. prison conditions were not even mentioned in the 2005 report. Instead, the Rapporteur criticized the United States for its special rendition of Maher Arar, a Canadian sent by the United States to Syria where he was tortured. The Rapporteur also cited "Secret [CIA] detention centers under United States' authority in various parts of the world, in which an unknown number of persons are detained," noting that the Red Cross has no access to them and that "there is no oversight of the conditions of detention and the treatment of the detainees." He said this was of particular concern given Vice President Cheney's efforts to obtain an exemption for the CIA from the McCain anti-torture bill of 2005.



Tolley Jr., Howard. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1987.


Farley, Maggie. "Report: U.S. Is Abusing Captives." The Los Angeles Times (February 13, 2006).

Savage, Charlie. "Bush Could Bypass New Torture Ban." The Boston Globe (January 4, 2006).

Smith, R. Jeffrey, and Josh White. "Cheney Plan Exempts CIA From Bill Barring Abuse of Detainees." The Washington Post (October 25, 2005).

Web sites

United States Department of State. "Second Periodic Report of the United States of America to the Committee Against Torture." 〈http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/45738.htm〉 (accessed April 20, 2006).

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