Report from the UN Special Rapporteur on torture on abuse of prisoners and detainees

20 April 2010

From the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights: 'After five years as the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, says one of the most surprising and distressing of his experiences has been the realization of the appalling conditions endured by the majority of the world’s prisoners and detainees. “In many countries,” he says, “I was simply shocked by the way human beings are treated in detention. As soon as they are behind bars, detainees lose most of their human rights and often are simply forgotten by the outside world.”

With only a few months to go before his mandate expires, Nowak has produced a global study for the Human Rights Council detailing his experiences and major concerns and one of the most troubling, he says, is the condition of prisoners, those who have been sentenced and those yet to be charged and tried.

The detainees described in the report are from the most disadvantaged corners of society – the poor, minorities, drug users or aliens and right at the bottom of the prison hierarchy itself, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and diseases, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans-gender persons. These people, Nowak says, suffer double or triple discrimination.'

Click here to read the full announcement.

The report contains a number of fascinating insights. Among them the Special Rapporteur highlights the very wrong notion among some officials that there are ‘exceptional circumstances’ – such as the war on drugs for example – that might diminish the absolute prohibition on torture.

He wrote: ‘While I fully respect and understand the fundamental security challenges with which many States are confronted, and express my full support for their legitimate and lawful endeavours to protect their citizens, it is somewhat astounding and instructive to see how many alleged “exceptional circumstances”, “unique situations” etc. were presented to me in the course of the last five years. In many of my fact-finding missions, Government officials indicated that their country was currently confronted with an unrivalled and critical security challenge ranging from “global war on terror”, internal armed conflict and secessionist movements to high rates of violent crime and drug offences. Against this background, officials of all ranks at least implicitly put the absoluteness and non-derogability of the torture prohibition into question and on some occasions portrayed it as an academic or theoretical, if not naïve ideal which lacks applicability and a sense of realism.’

He later added, ‘The use of torture to extract information other than a confession from a detainee is also widespread in many countries. Often detainees, whether in prisons or in police stations, were severely beaten in order to release names of co-perpetrators of ordinary crimes, and most of these victims were convicted for small offenses. As an example, numerous detainees I interviewed during my mission to Indonesia, often incarcerated for drug-related crimes, indicated to have been tortured to provide information on their drug suppliers.’

This interesting report is well worth reading. A full copy is available below.