By Zach Zarnow
A report by human rights experts for the UN Human Rights Council has found that the use of secret detention has become a widespread tactic in anti-terrorism policies and has led to violations of human rights and international law. The report is the result of almost a year of work by experts commissioned by the Council and draws on responses to detailed questionnaires by 44 states as well testimony from 30 individuals who were victims of secret detention or are family members or legal counsel to those who were victims. The report, which will be presented to the Council in March, concludes that “secret detention is irreconcilably in violation of international human rights law including during states of emergency and armed conflict.”
Secret detention seriously affects detainees and their families. According to the report, “many victims feel that the secret detention has ‘stolen’ years of their lives and left indelible traces, often in terms of loss of their jobs and frequently their health.” Families also suffer because they are usually unaware even of their relative’s capture, let alone his location, legal status, or health condition.
The use of secret detention is not a new, nor is its illegality. The Nazis carried out secret detentions in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1970s and 1980s, Latin American dictatorships often caused political opposition to disappear, as did the former Soviet Union. Now, when the perceived threat from global terrorism is at the forefront of many world leaders’ concerns, secret detentions have once again become pervasive. The report notes that in spite of international law, “the practice of secret detention in the context of countering terrorism is widespread and has been reinvigorated by the so-called global war on terror.” The practice has evolved in this context of the war on terror. It not only includes secret detention facilities, but also declarations of a state of emergency or the practice of “administrative detention,” both of which allow for prolonged detention.
Dozens of states in every region of the world are implicated in the report as carrying out secret detentions. The governments of Algeria, China, Egypt, India, Iran, Russia, Sri, Lanka, Sudan, and Zimbabwe have all been accused of using secret detention facilities to hold political opponents or perceived security risks. The United States is singled out for its leading role in the practice, especially in reference to the Guantanamo Bay facility and the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of allies and “black sites” to keep detained terror suspects outside the jurisdiction of domestic courts. The report says that the CIA transferred many terror suspects to Djibouti, Ethiopia, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, and Syria, as well as Thailand, Romania, and Poland.
States not directly implicated in carrying out secret detentions have been accused of facilitating the practice in violation of international and domestic law. Amnesty International says that the Irish government lied to UN researchers about its role in assisting CIA renditions. Amnesty claims that Ireland’s tacit role “is not just about transferring prisoners through Irish airspace, it is about making rendition possible by allowing Shannon [airport] to be used as a launching pad for CIA operations.” The United Kingdom has also been accused of tacit participation in secret renditions, charges the UK denies. The report claims that the UK gave interrogators questions to be asked and received information about detainees that were being held in secret prisons.
The report has found that secret detention should be explicitly prohibited. Even during armed conflict, the report concludes that countries should disclose the location of all detention facilities to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Committee needs to be able to “assess the conditions of detention and treatment and facilitate the exchange of family news between the person detained and the relatives who are concerned about the safety and the well being of the person.” The report also recommends that judicial remedies be embraced to allow reparations and rehabilitation to victims and their families.