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UN official targets US detentions

Fears 'war on terror' eroding ban on torture

UNITED NATIONS -- The US-led fight against terrorism is eroding the global prohibition of torture and other forms of cruel or degrading treatment of prisoners, the top UN human rights official said yesterday in a statement commemorating Human Rights Day.

Louise Arbour, high commissioner for human rights at the United Nations, presented the most forceful criticism to date of US detention policies by a senior UN official, asserting that holding suspects incommunicado in itself amounts to torture.

She also expressed concern in a news conference with efforts by some US policymakers to exempt CIA interrogators from elements of the UN Convention Against Torture. Vice President Dick Cheney's office has sought to block efforts by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and other lawmakers to subject CIA personnel to the 1984 convention's ban on the use of cruel or degrading treatment of detainees.

But sources on Capitol Hill said yesterday the administration is backing down on its opposition to the proposed legislation, after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Ukraine that US personnel are prohibited from violating the Convention Against Torture overseas.

Arbour's statement said that the ''absolute ban on torture, a cornerstone of the international human rights edifice, is under attack. The principle once believed to be unassailable -- the inherent right to physical integrity and dignity of person -- is becoming a casualty of the so-called 'war on terrorism.' "

John Bolton, US ambassador to the United Nations, criticized Arbour, calling it ''inappropriate" for her to choose a Human Rights Day celebration to criticize the United States instead of such rights abusers as Burma, Cuba, and Zimbabwe. He also warned that it would undercut his efforts to negotiate formation of a new human rights council that would exclude countries with bad rights records.

''Today is Human Rights Day. It would be appropriate, I think, for the UN's high commissioner for human rights to talk about the serious human rights problems that exist in the world today," Bolton told reporters.

Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court justice, did not name the United States in her statement. But she criticized two elements of US counterterrorism policy: the use of severe interrogation techniques -- which the CIA has authorized -- and the rendition, or transfer, of suspects to countries that have engaged in torture.

She said ''moves to water down or question the absolute ban on torture, as well as on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" are ''particularly insidious." She added that ''governments in a number of countries are claiming that established rules do not apply anymore: that we live in a changed world and that there is a 'new normal.' "

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