17 November 2010

Interview with outgoing UN Special Rapporteur Manfred Nowak

Manfred Nowak, Austrian human rights lawyer and university professor as well as co-founder and Scientific Director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Human Rights, gave a public lecture on November 9 at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna to discuss his experiences during the six-year mandate as UN Special Rapporteur of Torture. He is handing over to Juan Méndez, an Argentinian and torture survivor himself who has taught at American University, Georgetown and Oxford. You can find an account of Nowak's work in the Journal of Human Rights Practice, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 2009, pp. 101-119 (downloadable as PDF HERE).

I wish I was able to attend the public lecture. Despite the fact that it was hosted by a veteran national television journalist, there does not seem to be any recording to share with you here either (events at the Diplomatic Academy are sometimes in English). Instead, I found an interview with Austrian broadsheet "Der Standard" on 22 October 2010, translated from German by me below.

"UN human rights protection in huge crisis - UN Special Rapporteur on Torture's harsh judgement on the UN Human Rights Council: 'Obama daily violating UN Convention on Torture'

UN special rapporteur on torture Manfred Nowak discusses with reporter Julia Raabe, why there is no torture in Denmark anymore and how the EU fails Greece. At the end of his mandate, the expert also takes on the UN Human Rights Council.

STANDARD: Has there been a global reduction in torture ever since your assumption of office as Rapporteur in 2004?

Nowak: I am afraid not. But it also has not increased. For my visits, I chose countries from all continents and all legal systems, and not only those where I assumed the situation there was bad. My insight is: Torture happens in a signifant majority of countries, only to a different extent. In Greece, which I have just inspected, there were few cases. Singular cases.

STANDARD: So instead, you have expressed shock at the refugee situation there.

Nowak: The detention conditions are catastrophic. 90% of all arrests of irregular migrants in the EU this year happened in Greece. Therefore, I demand from the EU to suspend the Dublin II Convention (whereby immigrants can be deported in the EU country into which they first travelled) and not to send anyone back to Greece but instead to conduct the asylum process itself.

STANDARD: Is Athens overwhelmed or is there bad faith behind it?

Nowak: The Greek are entirely overwhelmed. The new administration is really willing to change something. But it needs financial and other assistance from the EU. They require open reception centres, access to the asylum process etc. Sending Frontex by itself is not enough. Generally, the Dublin II Convention has to be reviewed on the long run. It is a completely unfair system which overwhelms some countries and treats these unfairly.

STANDARD: Are there also particularly exemplary countries?

Nowak: Denmark, including Greenland, is the only among the 18 countries I visited, in which I did not find any torture or related accusations. It confirms that every government can eliminate torture, if it really wants to. This also includes to penetrate the corps mentality and to not cover for anyone anymore if a detainee is tortured. It is still like that in Austria: If there is an accusation of torture, the first thing the Ministry of Interior does is to say: Nothing of it is true. Instead of declaring that they do not know and will investigate. In Denmark, the detention conditions were also better than in any other countries.

STANDARD: Is there a connection between detention conditions and torture?

Nowak: Of course. A main problem is that the public does not know what happens behind closed doors - and maybe does not even want to know. The predominant opinion is: Whoever finds themselves behind bars is there for a reason. But in reality, this is often entirely untrue. In a modern penal system, the detainee is deprived of his personal freedom but his/her detention conditions should resemble those outside in order to easier resocialise them. This is the reason why Denmark has such a low reoffense rate. In contrast, you have countries with archaic thinking, such as all ex-Soviet countries, China but also the US: Whoever is sentenced should suffer.

STANDARD: About the US: You were very optimistic at the start of the Obama administration that a lot will change and that Guantanomo will be closed, as announced. This did not happen. Are you disappointed?

Nowak: He probably really wanted to close Guantanomo within a year. Congress, state governors but also European governments made it as hard as possible for him. But a practice of torture as during the Bush administration, really does not exist anymore. That he did succeeded in.

STANDARD: Does this mean that you are not aware of any actual cases of US citizens?

Nowak: No. But the Obama administration is accused - rightly so, I believe - handing over detainees from US detention in Iraq to the Iraqi authorities well aware that they will be tortured there. What I most criticise Obama for, is that there is no review of human rights violations from the Bush administration. There is and has been no reconciliation with the past, even if the body of evidence is extensive. Legally speaking, Obama is thereby daily violating the UN Convention Against Torture and other international conventions.

STANDARD: As Special Rapporteur, you have to await invitation by the respective country - which is not always given, as in Zimbabwe where you were refused entry at the airport, or in Iran. Doesn't this mean that you risk not solving the most recent cases of torture?

Nowak: Of course, I would have liked to visit many countries with pressing suspicions of systematic torture, like Egypt or Syria or in fact, many Near Eastern and North African countries. But Equitorial Guinea belongs to the same category as Zimbabwe or Egypt. I was in Nepal during an ugly time, in Sri Lanka at the height of the conflict between the military and the Tamil rebels - and I have detected terrible torture methods.

STANDARD: Why do some countries agree to meet you? Don't they risk criticism?

Nowak: Uruguay is an example of the ideal case: The new administration wanted an independent evaluation. It knew that the situation was not good but they wanted to change it. The prison conditions were horrible. My recommentations to immediately close certain prison sections was ordered three days later by presidential decree. Countries like Equitorial Guinea and Nepal likely still hope that I do not find out the whole truth. Or the pressure of regional communities on them is too large.

STANDARD: Did it happen a lot that countries tried to hide something?

Nowak: Kazakhstan was a master. I was constantly under surveillance. In the prisons, everything had just been painted. The Potemkin villages were bizarre, at times: In a women's penitentiary, the women were not allowed for four days to sleep in their freshly made beds because they did not know when we would come and wanted everything to look nice. The detainees were intimidated, we constantly were confronted with lies and the same prepared answers. It was a great effort to convey to the detainnes that our conversations really were confidential.

The Chinese were extremely efficient in surveillance, including our mobile phones. Victims who were supposed to come to Beijing to meet us were taken out of the train in Shanghai. The wife of a detainee was taken from her work place, the children from school and moved out of Beijing. I threatened three times to abort the mission if this did not stop. Eventually, it did work but I had to raise huge efforts in this cat and mouse game.

STANDARD: You started your work at the time of the Human Rights Commission. Since 2006, there is the Human Rights Council Austria is now also applying to. Has anything changed?

Nowak: I see the UN human rights protection in huge crisis. Actually, the Human Rights Council was supposed to act upon the expertise of independent experts. But the better we (the Rapporteurs) do our work, the more we are criticised by countries - due to political agendas. That is completely absurd. Those countries that violate human rights the most have the council majority. The UN must reform its human rights organs profoundly if it does not want to embarass itself permanently.

STANDARD: What has to change?

Nowak: For my mandate, I demand a convention for the rights of detainees, which are pretty bad. Particularly important is also to ratify the Additional Protocol to the Convention of Torture and in doing so, to enable better prison access. Generally, I demand the creation of a global court of justice for human rights which even supersedes the competencies of the European Court of Human Rights. This could change a lot of things."

(Find the original HERE)

Biography of Manfred Nowak
Biography of Juan Méndez

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