The United Nations Committee against Torture is concerned about the failure of the United States to enact a federal crime of torture in terms consistent with the standards set by the World Convention against Torture, as well as the number of cases of abuse and violence perpetrated by its police and prison guards.

By Gustavo Capdevila

Geneva: The United Nations Committee against Torture expressed its concern on 15 May for the failure of the United States to classify this human rights crime under federal jurisdiction in terms consistent with the standards set by the World Convention against Torture.

The UN Committee, which oversees and monitors actions of Parties to the Convention, also conveyed its alarm about the number of cases of mistreatment perpetrated by police against civilians and for similar violent incidents in the US prison system.

The Committee recommended that the US abolish electro-shock stun belts and restraint chairs as methods of restraining those in custody. It also expressed concern about the excessively harsh regime of 'supermaximum' prisons.

At the same time, the Committee welcomed the extensive legal protection against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the broad legal recourse to compensation for victims of torture, whether or not such torture occurred in the USA.

The Committee was concerned over the US failure to enact a federal crime of torture in terms consistent with Article 1 of the Convention, and the reservations lodged by the United States to Article 16, in violation of the Convention, in effect limiting the application of the Convention.

A major portion of the abuse attributed to police and prison guards is apparently based on discrimination, said the Committee, which is entrusted with studying the compliance of signing countries with the Convention's terms.

Other points of concern over US practices figuring in the report include:

* the number of cases of police ill-treatment of civilians, ill-treatment in prisons including inter-prisoner violence - with much of the police and prison ill-treatment related to discrimination;

* alleged cases of sexual assault on female detainees and prisoners by law enforcement officers and prison personnel, as well as female prisoners and detainees very often being held in humiliating and degrading circumstances;

* use of 'chain-gangs', particularly in public;

* significant restrictions on prisoners being able to seek redress through legal actions, by the requirement of physical injury as a condition for successful action under the Prison Litigation Reform Act; and

* the holding of minors (juveniles) with adults in regular prison population.

The Committee, among other things, has recommended that the US enact a federal crime of torture in terms consistent with Article 1 of the Convention and withdraw its reservations, interpretations and understandings related to the Convention; take steps necessary to ensure that those violating the Convention be investigated, prosecuted and punished, especially those motivated by discriminatory purposes or sexual gratification; and abolish electro-shock stun belts and restraint chairs.

Sources close to the Committee say the conclusions and recommendations in response to the US report, released on 15 May, 'are close to the normal average' of observations the Committee formulates about the countries that have ratified the Convention.

Without adding much commentary, the US delegation present at the hearing thanked the Committee for its assessment and gave assurance that the recommendations would be brought to the attention of government authorities in Washington DC.

The previous week, when the UN Committee had initiated discussions on the US case, the nation's Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Harold Hongju Koh, said he was 'very proud of our record in eliminating torture'. But, he added, 'we acknowledge continuing areas of concern in the United States'.

That same week, Amnesty International, the London-based human rights defence organisation, demanded that the UN Committee condemn the United States for the cases of torture reported there, occurring mainly at the hands of police and prison guards.

The Committee against Torture, with 10 independent experts, said it was also concerned about allegations of sexual assault against female detainees and prisoners, perpetrated by law enforcement officers and prison staff.

Detained and imprisoned women are often subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment, said the Committee.

Another cause of concern was the use of electro-shock devices and other methods of restraint that violate the explicit provisions of the Convention against Torture.

During the 1-19 May session, the Committee observed that in Poland, some sectors of the police force engaged in aggressive behaviour against detainees, with some incidents resulting in death.

The Committee also condemned the persistence in the Polish army of a practice known as 'fala', under which new recruits are subjected to abuse and humiliation.

In the case of Portugal, the Committee expressed concern about the continuing reports about deaths and mistreatment 'arising out of contact by members of the public with police', and the ongoing inter-prisoner violence in the nation's prisons.

In its analysis of the situation in China, the UN Committee was disturbed by persistent allegations of serious incidents of torture, especially involving Tibetans and other national minorities.

The UN agency recommended that authorities in Beijing 'incorporate a definition of torture into its domestic law that fully complies with the definition contained in the Convention'.

The Committee also called on Paraguay to adopt the same definition of such crimes, and condemned the acts of torture that continue to occur at the country's police stations.

Its conclusions also mentioned cases of torture within the Paraguayan armed forces entailing the ill-treatment of recruits.

In response to the UN Committee's evaluation, the Paraguayan delegation said the country had found members of the Gen. Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship (1954-1989) guilty of crimes of torture and had sentenced them to terms of up to 25 years in prison.

Paraguay, according to the delegates, was the only country from Latin America's Southern Cone (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay) that had not decreed amnesty for human rights crimes committed under the dictatorships that dominated this region in the 1970s and 1980s.

But the Paraguayan representatives in Geneva regretted that many individuals responsible for torture in their country remain at large. Specifically, Brazil refused to extradite Stroessner to Paraguay on the pretext that he had obtained political asylum there. Similarly, Honduras had also denied extradition of the Paraguayan dictatorship's Interior Minister, Sabino Augusto Montanaro. - Third World Network/IPS

About the writer: Gustavo Capdevila is a correspondent for Inter Press Service, with whose permission the above article has been reprinted.