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Governments around the world have legitimate security concerns in the face of violent terrorist attacks. Some governments, however, are returning alleged terrorist or national security suspects to countries where they are at risk of torture or ill-treatment.1 Governments have justified such acts by relying on diplomatic assurances—formal guarantees from the government in the country of return that a person will not be subjected to torture upon return.2 States secure diplomatic assurances in advance of return and claim that by doing so, they comply with the absolute prohibition in international law against returning a person—no matter what his or her alleged crime or status—to a place where he or she would be at risk of torture or ill-treatment. Some states appear to be returning people based on diplomatic assurances with the knowledge that torture will be used upon return to extract information and confessions regarding terrorist activities and associations.3 Governments sometimes also engage in post-return monitoring of persons they transfer, implying that such monitoring is an additional safeguard against torture.

The United Nations Security Council, however, requires that all measures to combat terrorism must conform with member states’ international human rights obligations.4 The absolute prohibition against torture, including the prohibition against returning a person to a place where he or she would be at risk of torture or ill-treatment, is a cornerstone of human rights protection.5 There has long been consensus among states that the prohibition against torture is among the rights so fundamental to the preservation of human dignity that there can be no justification for their violation, even in a climate of fear generated by acts of terrorism. This widespread commitment to respect for human life and the rule of law stands in stark contrast to the disdain for these principles shown by terrorists.

The widespread or systematic use of torture in many of the countries to which people have been returned, indicates that diplomatic assurances and post-return monitoring are inadequate safeguards against torture and ill-treatment. In the vast majority of cases, states seek diplomatic assurances from governments in countries where torture is systematic or routinely practiced upon certain types of people—political dissidents, for example. In countries where torture is widespread, systematic, or where particular types of people are routinely tortured based on their race, ethnicity, religion, political opinions or other status, torture is practiced in secret, within the walls of prisons and detention facilities rarely open to scrutiny by independent, well-trained monitors. Prison guards and other prison personnel are trained in torture techniques that ensure such secrecy, including physical abuse that leaves few outward marks and intimidation tactics that frighten prisoners into silence about the abuse. Prison doctors and other medical personnel are often complicit in covering up any signs of torture. In such countries, governments routinely deny lawyers and family members confidential access or private visits with prisoners. As noted above, they also deny access to independent monitors, expert in detecting signs of torture. In some countries, where torture is widespread and endemic, state authorities may not have effective control over the forces perpetrating acts of torture. Indeed, governmental authorities in countries where torture is systematic routinely deny the existence of torture at all.

The dangers of relying on diplomatic assurances as a safeguard against torture are apparent. Where governments routinely deny that torture is practiced, despite the fact that it is systematic or widespread, official assurances cannot be considered reliable. The secrecy surrounding the practice of torture militates against effective post-return monitoring.

Governments are aware of the dynamics of torture noted above. Indeed, post-return monitoring per definition implies a fundamental distrust of the formal diplomatic assurances and lack of confidence in domestic mechanisms to hold perpetrators of torture accountable in the countries offering such assurances. Sending governments would no doubt argue that post-return monitoring is merely a failsafe, and that they would not return anyone whom they genuinely believed to be at risk. But when governments and international organizations dispatch monitors to observe elections or assess human rights they do so because they fear election fraud and human rights violations. It follows that the use of post-return monitoring in cases of returns involving diplomatic assurances amounts to an acknowledgement that returnees are at risk of torture or ill-treatment.

Moreover, post-return monitoring of the sort required by the absolute prohibition against torture would necessarily involve constant vigilance from the date of return onward by persons expertly trained at detecting signs of torture and unfettered access without advance notice to prisons, police stations, and other places of detention. It would also require that monitors have the authority and political will to remedy the situation and seek accountability for the abusing government. Even if these conditions were attainable, any government undertaking such monitoring would gain nothing by acknowledging the receiving state’s abuse other than its own admission of violating the norm against return.

Despite the problems associated with diplomatic assurances, some governments justify the practice of returns based on them as a requirement of their international obligations to combat terrorism. When Sweden made submissions to the U.N. Committee against Torture to explain its summary expulsion in December 2001 of two Egyptian asylum seekers suspected of terrorism-related acts, following diplomatic assurances of fair treatment from the Egyptian authorities, it invoked its responsibility under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373 to “deny safe haven to those who finance, plan, support or commit terrorist acts, or themselves provide safe haven.”6 In a similar vein, after Georgia extradited five Chechens to Russia following Russian diplomatic assurances, despite a request from the European Court of Human Rights not to extradite, then-President Eduard Shevardnadze replied to criticism of the returns by stating that “International human rights commitments might become pale in comparison with the importance of the anti-terrorist campaign.”7

Some U.N. human rights mechanisms have openly criticized the interpretation of Security Council Resolution 1373 relied on by Sweden, pointing to the subsequent Security Council Resolution 1456, which requires states to “ensure that any measure taken to combat terrorism complies with all their obligations under international law,” and to “adopt such measures in accordance with international law, in particular international human rights, refugee, and humanitarian law.”8 In June 2003, Nigel Rodley, a member of the U.N. Human Rights Committee and former Special Rapporteur on Torture, appeared before the newly established Counter Terrorism Committee (CTC), the U.N. mechanism tasked with monitoring states’ compliance with Resolution 1373, to remind the committee that Resolutions 1373 and 1456 must be taken together to ensure that Resolution 1373 did not become “an instrument for circumventing states’ human rights obligations.”9 Significantly, Rodley expressed particular concern that in the course of reviewing Slovakia’s first report, the CTC’s follow-up questions, requesting clarification regarding expulsions and exclusion of persons from refugee status based on suspected links with terrorist groups,10 “could be understood to be urging that State to overlook the principle that in no case should a person be sent to a territory where he or she faces torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”11 Rodley urged the CTC to pose questions to member states on the human rights dimensions of their reports to the Committee, as suggested in a 2002 memo issued by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to the CTC; and to seek human rights expertise “among the complement of expertise it [the CTC] has at its disposal.”12

The use of diplomatic assurances is not well-documented and practice appears to vary among states, regions, and legal jurisdictions. Few jurisdictions expressly provide for the use of diplomatic assurances in law. Negotiations for securing diplomatic assurances are often conducted at a political level and are not transparent. In many countries, a person has no effective opportunity to challenge the reliability and adequacy of such assurances.

This report analyzes the use of diplomatic assurances by governments and commentary on their use from the U.N. system, North America, and the Council of Europe region. It includes Human Rights Watch’s research on several cases that involve the use of diplomatic assurances. The report examines cases in which courts have ruled on the adequacy of such assurances, frequently finding that diplomatic assurances are not an effective safeguard against torture. The report highlights returns or proposed returns based on diplomatic assurances from Austria, Canada, Georgia, Germany, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the United States to countries where torture is a serious or systematic human rights problem, including Egypt, Philippines, Russia, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Uzbekistan. This is not an exhaustive survey, but reflects relevant information available to Human Rights Watch indicating inherent problems and dangers with respect to the use of diplomatic assurances and how select legal systems have addressed the use of such assurances.

1 The word “return” includes any process leading to the involuntary return of a non-national either to his or her country of origin or to a third country, including by deportation, expulsion, extradition and rendition.

2 Diplomatic assurances can also include guarantees against other forms of ill-treatment not rising to the level of torture, for a fair trial, or against application of the death penalty. While it is beyond the scope of this brief to discuss diplomatic assurances in the context of the death penalty, such assurances differ from the relatively novel practice of assurances against torture and ill-treatment in several respects. It is generally more straightforward to monitor a requesting state’s compliance with assurances regarding the death penalty than with assurances against torture or ill-treatment as execution is a legal outcome, usually more immediately visible than torture or ill-treatment in detention, which by nature are illegal and practiced in secret. Thus, assurances against torture and ill-treatment should not be considered as a natural extension of the practice of securing assurances against execution. See section below on Canada for more on the distinction between the two.

3 See, in particular, the section below on the United States.

4 Security Council Resolution 1456 (2003) makes clear that: “States must ensure that any measure taken to combat terrorism complies with all their obligations under international law, and should adopt such measures in accordance with international law, in particular international human rights, refugee, and humanitarian law,” para. 6 [online]

(retrieved March 31, 2004).

5 The prohibition against torture and ill-treatment, including the prohibition against returning a person to a country where he or she is at risk of torture or ill-treatment, is absolute and permits no exceptions; states cannot derogate from this obligation. The prohibition is enshrined in articles 1 and 3 of the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT); article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); article 3 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR); article 5 of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR); and article 5 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Banjul Charter). The prohibition against torture has risen to the level of jus cogens and is a peremptory norm of international law. For the purposes of this paper, the word “torture” when used alone includes cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in conformity with the instruments noted above and the U.N. Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 20 (1992), which states: “In the view of the Committee, States parties must not expose individuals to the danger of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment upon return to another country by way of their extradition, expulsion or refoulement. States parties should indicate in their reports what measures they have adopted to that end.” Though the language of non-refoulement is most commonly associated with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, the obligation of non-refoulement has much broader application vis-à-vis the CAT and other instruments referenced above, and thus applies to the return of any person at risk of torture or ill-treatment, not only refugees.

6 See Attia v. Sweden, CAT/C/31/D/199/2002, November 24, 2003, para. 4.4 [online] (retrieved March 25, 2004).

7 See International Helsinki Federation Appeal, “Violations of the Rights of Chechens in Georgia,” December 23, 2002 [online] (retrieved March 25, 2004).

8 Security Council Resolution 1456 (2003), op. cit., para. 6.

9 Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee, Briefing by Sir Nigel Rodley, Vice Chairperson, U.N. Human Rights Committee, “Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism Measures,” June 19, 2003, para. 3 [online] (retrieved March 25, 2004).

10 Supplementary report of Slovakia to the CTC, July 2, 2002, pages 15, 20-21 [online] (retrieved March 31, 2004).

11 Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee, Briefing by Sir Nigel Rodley, op. cit., para. 11.

12 Ibid., paras. 10 and 11. Rodley refers to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), “Note to the Chair of the Counter-Terrorism Committee: A Human Rights Perspective on Counter-Terrorist Measures,” September 23, 2002 [online] (retrieved March 25, 2004) and OHCHR, “Further Guidance Note on Compliance with International Human Rights Standards,” September 23, 2002 [online] (retrieved March 25, 2004).

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