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US Will Block Vote on UN Torture Measure, Diplomats Say

24 July 2002

Fearing independent visits to US prisons and to terror suspects on Guantanamo, the United States is planning to block a UN vote on a plan to enforce an international convention on torture, US diplomats and human rights campaigners said Tuesday.

The vote in the U.N. Economic and Social Council, known as ECOSOC, is scheduled for Wednesday but a U.S. official said the United States wants to reopen negotiations on wording adopted in Geneva in April. Among the concerns is language that could allow for international and independent visits to U.S. prisons and to detainees being held by the U.S. military on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, referred to such visits to state prisons. The official said that states have their own penal laws and a U.S. government-backed convention permitting visits would infringe on state's rights.

Another problem, the official said, is the issue of access to suspected al-Qaida and Taliban fighters captured in Afghanistan and other prisoners being held in the war on terrorism.

U.S. officials said the United States intended to oppose the issue when it comes to a vote. They said that Ambassador Sichan Siv, the U.S. representative to ECOSOC, plans to ask the council to reopen negotiations.

Human rights advocates argue that the 15-page document, called an optional protocol, is essential to enforce an international convention on torture passed 10 years ago.

"A vote against the optional protocol would be a disastrous set back in the fight against torture," said Martin MacPherson, head of Amnesty International's legal program. People were tortured or ill-treated by authorities in 111 countries last year, according to an Amnesty report.

The protocol is widely supported by Western European and Latin American countries. Activists fear that if the United States succeeds in reopening the negotiations, "it will mean a kiss of death," for the protocol, said Rory Mungoven of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"This protocol would create a more pro-active mechanism that includes visits to prisons and other preventive measures which would help enforce the convention," Mungoven told The Associated Press.

The convention on torture was passed in 1989 and has since been ratified by about 130 countries, including the United States.

The protocol, which has been under negotiation for a decade, would be an optional, supplementary document. According to the text, the objective of the protocol is "to establish a system of regular visits undertaken by independent and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty, in order to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment."

If the protocol is approved, it moves to the General Assembly where it would need to be approved by a majority of the 190 member states. Then, it will require 20 ratifications before it can go into force.

Dafna Linzer, United Nations
Published by the Associated Press © 2002 The Associated Press

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