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Several U.N. human rights mechanisms have commented on the use of diplomatic assurances in the context of member states’ obligation not to return a person to a risk of torture or ill-treatment. These U.N. mechanisms have commented or deliberated on the circumstances in which diplomatic assurances can be used and what safeguards should be in place to ensure that, if used, they are effective in protecting the person in question from torture or ill-treatment upon return and throughout the duration of his or her stay in the country of return.

U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture

In his February 2002 annual report to the Commission on Human Rights, the first in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded that “the legal and moral basis for the prohibition against torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment is absolute and imperative and must under no circumstances yield or be subordinated to other interests, policies, and practices.”13 The Special Rapporteur’s July 2002 interim report to the General Assembly, specifically focusing on the prohibition of torture in the context of counter-terrorism measures, reaffirms the absolute nature of the prohibition, and calls on states not to extradite anyone “unless the Government of the receiving country has provided an unequivocal guarantee to the extraditing authorities that the persons concerned will not be subjected to torture or any other forms of ill-treatment upon return, and that a system to monitor the treatment of the persons in question has been put into place with a view to ensuring that they are treated with full respect for their human dignity.”14

The Special Rapporteur emphasizes a two-pronged approach to gauging the reliability of diplomatic assurances. Before a person may be returned, assurances must be “unequivocal,” that is, leaving absolutely no doubt that no torture or ill-treatment will occur. Second, there must be a “system to monitor” the protection of the returned person from torture and ill-treatment. Such a systematic program of rigorous and on-going monitoring is created by advance agreement between the two states involved and will ascertain that the objective conditions exist—and will continue to exist—for protection against mistreatment. Any effective post-return monitoring system requires the good faith and the requisite logistical capacity of both governments to provide a reliable safeguard against the risk of torture.15

The Special Rapporteur thus creates the highest of bars to reliance on diplomatic assurances in the context of returns where a person would be in danger of torture or ill-treatment. This raises the question of whether diplomatic assurances can ever be an effective safeguard for returns to countries where the practice of torture is systematic, widespread or endemic. Some states, however, have invoked the Special Rapporteur’s statements on the issue of diplomatic assurances to justify returns to countries that practice systematic torture or where torture is endemic. Sweden, for example, in a memorandum to the Human Rights Committee in May 2003 regarding the expulsions of two asylum seekers to Egypt,16 supported its claim that Egypt’s assurances were an adequate safeguard against torture by citing the Special Rapporteur’s July 2002 interim report and formula for diplomatic assurances,17 despite well-documented evidence that torture in Egypt is, in fact, widespread.18

This interpretation, however, is not supported by the Special Rapporteur’s subsequent report dealing with one such country where torture is a serious and persistent problem, Uzbekistan. The Special Rapporteur’s February 2003 report, finding that torture or other similar ill-treatment is “systematic” in Uzbekistan, relies on the following definition, currently in use by the U.N. Committee against Torture:

Torture is practised systematically when it is apparent that torture cases reported have not occurred fortuitously in a particular place or at a particular time, but are seen to be habitual, widespread and deliberate in at least a considerable part of the territory of the country in question. Torture may in fact be of a systematic character without resulting from the direct intention of a Government. It may be the consequence of factors which the Government has difficulty in controlling, and its existence may indicate a discrepancy between policy as determined by the central Government and its implementation by the local administration. Inadequate legislation which in practice allows room for the use of torture may also add to the systematic nature of this practice.19

This definition of “systematic” appears to preclude reliance on diplomatic assurances from countries where torture is systematic. The definition allows for two possibilities: 1) torture is state policy, and its practice is intended and sanctioned at the highest levels of government; 2) torture is practiced, but governmental authorities do not have effective control over the forces at local level that perpetrate acts of torture. In both cases, reliance on diplomatic assurances could not provide the guarantees necessary to meet the returning state’s international obligations.

States where recourse to torture is a matter of state policy routinely deny the practice, often despite well-documented evidence that torture is, in fact, systematic. Assurances from such a state that a particular person would not be subject to torture if extradited or otherwise returned cannot therefore be considered as offered in good faith. For example, in his report on Uzbekistan, which illustrates the practice of systematic torture there with cases going back to 1992, the Special Rapporteur on Torture concludes that denials by Uzbek authorities that torture is systematic and sanctioned at the highest levels of authority are disingenuous:

…the Special Rapporteur has no doubt that the system of torture is condoned, if not encouraged, at the level of the heads of the places of detention where it takes place…If the top leadership of these forces and those politically responsible above them do not know of the existence of a system which the Special Rapporteur’s delegation was able to discover in a few days, it can only be because of a lack of desire to know. Moreover, in light of the information repeatedly conveyed to the authorities by the Special Rapporteur himself, [U.N.] human rights monitoring bodies,…and NGOs, the lack of such awareness may well reflect an unwillingness to look too closely at the problem. The very hierarchical nature of the law enforcement bodies also makes it difficult to believe that the top leadership of these forces is not aware of the situation…20

The Special Rapporteur’s findings indicate that diplomatic assurances from any government that persistently denies systematic torture or fails to take measures to halt the practice cannot be deemed reliable, and thus cannot comprise an adequate safeguard against torture and ill-treatment.

In order to ensure that the Special Rapporteur’s words are not misused to justify human rights violations, it is imperative that the Special Rapporteur reaffirm the absolute nature of the prohibition against returning a person to a risk of torture, and elaborate on the phenomenon of reliance on diplomatic assurances in a manner fully consistent with that absolute prohibition.21

U.N. Human Rights Committee

The U.N. Human Rights Committee has noted that the obligation not to return a person to a place where he or she would be at risk of torture is inherent in International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) article 7. In its General Comment 20 (1992) on article 7, the committee said: “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.”22

The Committee has also considered the link between the return of non-nationals and the prohibition against torture in its conclusions and recommendations on individual country reports, questioning the adequacy of such assurances as an effective safeguard. In its response to the Swedish government for expelling the two Egyptian asylum seekers in December 2001, the Committee expressed doubts about whether the assurances were adequate and whether Sweden had ensured there were “credible mechanisms” to monitor the men’s treatment post-return:

The Committee is concerned at cases of expulsion of asylum-seekers suspected of terrorism to their countries of origin. Despite guarantees that their human rights would be respected, those countries could pose risks to the personal safety and lives of the persons expelled, especially in the absence of sufficiently serious efforts to monitor the implementation of those guarantees (two visits by the embassy in three months, the first only some five weeks after the return and under the supervision of the detaining authorities). . .The State party should maintain its practice and tradition of observance of the principle of non-refoulement. When a State party expels a person to another State on the basis of assurances as to that person's treatment by the receiving State, it must institute credible mechanisms for ensuring compliance by the receiving State with these assurances from the moment of expulsion.23

Thus, the Human Rights Committee echoes the Special Rapporteur on Torture’s reaffirmation of the absolute nature of the prohibition against sending a person to a country where he or she would be at risk of torture. Moreover, the Committee’s reference to credible monitoring mechanisms from the date of expulsion highlights the inherent difficulties in developing post-return monitoring mechanisms that are adequate and effective, in order both to ensure that no violations occur and to hold abusive governments accountable if they do. If a person is tortured or ill-treated upon return, both governments should be held accountable, since both will have violated the prohibition against torture.

Likewise, in its 2002 conclusions on the report of New Zealand, the Committee expressed doubts about reliance on diplomatic assurances and recommended that the state party “strictly” observe its international obligations: “The Committee recognizes that the security requirements relating to the events of 11 September 2001 have given rise to efforts by New Zealand to take legislative and other measures to implement Security Council resolution 1373…The Committee…expresses its concern that the impact of such measures or changes in policy on New Zealand's obligations under the Covenant may not have been fully considered. The Committee is concerned about possible negative effects of the new legislation [and] the absence of monitoring mechanisms with regard to the expulsion of those suspected of terrorism to their countries of origin which, despite assurances that their human rights would be respected, could pose risks to the personal safety and lives of the persons expelled.”24 The Committee concluded that New Zealand should maintain its practice of “strictly observing the principle of non-refoulement.”25

U.N. Committee against Torture

The U.N. Convention against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) explicitly prohibits the return of a person to a country where he or she would be in danger of torture.26 In Tapia Paez v. Sweden, the Committee against Torture, authorized under the CAT to consider individual cases, stated that the test of article 3 of the Convention is absolute: “Whenever substantial grounds exist for believing that an individual would be in danger of being subjected to torture upon expulsion to another State, the State party is under obligation not to return the person concerned to that State. The nature of the activities in which the person concerned engaged cannot be a material consideration when making a determination under article 3 of the Convention.”27

In the November 2003 case of Hanan Attia,28 however, the Committee gave substantial deference to diplomatic assurances against torture, in particular where the suppression of international terrorism was at issue. This approach diverges from the other U.N. human rights mechanisms mentioned above and unfortunately threatens to undermine the principle that human rights obligations must be observed in all measures taken in the international effort to combat terrorism.

Hanan Attia, the wife of Ahmed Agiza, one of the Egyptians returned to Egypt by the Swedish government in December 2001, appealed her own pending return to the Committee against Torture. Her claim was based on the fact that the Egyptian government was preparing to try her husband on terrorism-related charges, and was likely to detain and torture her in an attempt to gain information about him. She also presented information from family members and a Swedish journalist to the effect that her husband had been tortured and mistreated in prison, contrary to diplomatic assurances given to the Swedish government by the Egyptian authorities, and contrary to the impressions of Swedish diplomatic personnel who had interviewed him during visits. As described in more detail below (see section on Sweden), none of the visits made by Swedish diplomatic representatives to Agiza were held in private. Prison personnel, including the warden and guards, were always present.

The Committee’s November 2003 decision that there was no violation of CAT article 3 in Hanan Attia’s case relied heavily on visits by Swedish diplomatic representatives to Agiza, beginning nearly two years before it considered his wife’s case; the fact that there had also been regular family visits in prison with Agiza; the alleged high level of the unnamed Egyptian official who presented assurances to Sweden; and the way in which the Swedish government impressed upon the Egyptian authorities that its conduct in this case would set a precedent for European cooperation with Egypt. The CAT decision also stated that Attia’s case was based solely on her relationship with her husband, rejecting her claim based on the conclusion that Agiza’s treatment in prison in Egypt was reported to be adequate.

There are many aspects of this decision that are troubling from a human rights perspective. The lack of privacy with the detainee during visits by Swedish representatives does not comport with the standards for prison visits to assess torture and ill-treatment applied by the International Committee of the Red Cross, nongovernmental organizations expert in prison issues, and the Special Rapporteur on Torture.29 This fact, combined with the contrary accounts of relatives and a journalist who visited Agiza—supported by evidence provided by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations—raises serious questions about the reliability of the conclusions of Swedish representatives regarding Agiza’s treatment. Given that the greatest risk of torture is generally in initial periods of detention, it is very troubling that five weeks elapsed before Agiza was first visited by Swedish officials. The Committee in the Attia decision never addresses such inconsistencies and lapses.

The Committee also failed to consider that unlike her husband, Attia—not pursued by the Egyptian authorities on suspicion of any criminal activity—would not be handed directly to authorities of the state, making monitoring of her whereabouts and condition more problematic. Moreover, the Swedish government’s emphasis on its obligations to combat terrorism under Security Council Resolution 1373 allows an inappropriate inference that Agiza’s alleged actions had some bearing on whether Attia’s return is warranted. Finally, there was a disturbing lack of transparency, as the Committee granted Sweden’s numerous requests to omit selected evidence from the record of the proceedings, including on the issue of allegations of torture and ill-treatment by Agiza and the Swedish government’s response to such allegations.30

The fact that Egypt did not seek Attia’s extradition nor lay criminal charges against her seems to have led the Committee to conclude she was at less risk than her husband, though in actual fact a potential witness may also be at great risk. The Attia decision also relies on Egypt’s status as a state party to the Convention against Torture in its conclusion that Attia would not be at risk of torture upon return, implying that mere accession to U.N. human rights instruments guarantees compliance with the obligations enshrined therein.

Despite these weaknesses, the Attia decision essentially underscores some key elements of other U.N. treaty body jurisprudence pertaining to the prohibition against returning a person at risk of torture. The requirement of good faith behind the assurances is acknowledged, even though it is assumed to have been met in this case because of the high political level of negotiations and access to the prisoner granted to Swedish officials. The requirement of monitoring is also present, although again it is assumed to have been met, (despite unchallenged evidence that the monitoring visits were not held in private and were not confidential).

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees

It is beyond the scope of this paper to consider the relationship between asylum and extradition. Recent research commissioned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), however, echoes the concern that diplomatic assurances are an inadequate safeguard for returns to countries where torture is a serious problem:

Assurances by the requesting State that it will not expose the person concerned to torture, or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, will not normally suffice to exonerate the requested state from its human rights obligations, particularly where there is a pattern of such abuses in the State seeking extradition. In such cases, the requested State is bound to refuse the surrender of the wanted person.31

This conclusion further reinforces the principle that the only absolute protection against irreparable and prohibited harm upon return, is not to return a person if there is any doubt at all that he or she would be at risk of torture or ill-treatment.

13 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture, Theo van Boven, to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, 58th Session, E/CN.4/2002/137, February 26, 2002, para. 15.

14 Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture, Theo van Boven, to the General Assembly A/57/173, July 2, 2002. The Special Rapporteur’s July 2003 report to the General Assembly states that both the U.N Human Rights Committee and the Committee against Torture have also recently reaffirmed the absolute nature of the principle of non-refoulement “and that expulsion of those suspected of terrorism to other countries must be accompanied by an effective system to closely monitor their fate upon return, with a view to ensuring that they will be treated with respect for their human dignity.” Report by the Special Rapporteur on Torture, Theo van Boven, to the United Nations General Assembly, A/58/120, July 3, 2003, para. 15.

15 A recent experience of the Special Rapporteur himself would seem to illustrate the need for assurances made in good faith and the capacity to comply with those assurances. In his February 2003 report on the question of torture in Uzbekistan, the Special Rapporteur details his “aborted visit to Jaslyk [penal] colony.” Despite indicating to the Uzbek authorities, upon whose invitation van Boven was in the country, that he required six hours to evaluate conditions in Jaslyk, “often cited for its hardship conditions and inhuman practices,” the itinerary and plane scheduled for the Special Rapporteur and arranged by the Uzbek authorities left van Boven only two hours for his assessment. The Special Rapporteur thus refused to inspect the colony and instead discussed deaths in custody with its director and conducted a few confidential interviews with inmates. However, the Special Rapporteur “noted with concern that these confidential interviews were abruptly disrupted on several occasions by the government official accompanying the Special Rapporteur’s delegation.” The Special Rapporteur regretted that he was unable to carry out his visit to Jaslyk “in a satisfactory and comprehensive manner.” See Report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture, Mission to Uzbekistan, E/CN.4/2003/68/add.2, February 3, 2003, para. 49 [online]$FILE/G0310766.doc (retrieved March 31, 2004). The Special Rapporteur concluded by regretting that the mission’s terms of reference (presumably agreed in advance) were not fully respected. Ibid., para. 60.

16 Op. cit., footnote 6. See also section below on Sweden.

17 Submission of the Swedish government to the U.N. Human Rights Committee (“Information requested by the Human Rights Committee from the Government of Sweden), May 6, 2003, on file with Human Rights Watch.

18 In December 2002, the U.N. Committee against Torture expressed concerns regarding “the many consistent reports received concerning the persistence of the phenomenon of torture and ill-treatment of detainees by law enforcement officials [in Egypt],” “widespread evidence of torture and ill-treatment in administrative premises under the control of the State Security Investigation Department,” and “the fact that victims of torture and ill-treatment have no direct access to the courts to lodge complaints against law enforcement officials.” See Conclusions and Recommendations of the Committee against Torture on the Fourth Periodic Report of Egypt, CAT/C/CR/29/4, December 23, 2002 [online] (retrieved March 31, 2004).

19 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture, Mission to Uzbekistan, February 2003, op. cit., para. 68.

20 Ibid., para. 69.

21 In his presentation to the CTC noted above, Rodley reaffirmed the absolute prohibition against returns to risk of torture, but also said: “Let me at once point out that this does not imply the granting of safe havens. Measures may be taken to ensure that, if returned, the person will not in fact be subjected to the feared violation. But those measures would need to be serious and effective.” Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee, Briefing by Sir Nigel Rodley, op. cit., para. 12. Assuming that this is a reference to securing diplomatic assurances, such a formulation for this alleged safeguard to torture is extremely vague—and thus open to various interpretations. The prohibition against torture is absolute and permits no exceptions. As such, any proposed safeguards must be fully articulated to ensure unequivocally that no violation will occur.

22 General Comment No. 20 (1992), op. cit., para. 9. Moreover, in March 2004, the Human Rights Committee adopted General Comment No. 31 on ICCPR article 2 regarding “The Nature of the General Legal Obligation Imposed on States Parties to the Covenant.” Paragraph 12 reads: “. . . the article 2 obligation requiring that States Parties respect and ensure the Covenant rights for all persons in their territory and all persons under their control entails an obligation not to extradite, deport, expel or otherwise remove a person from their territory, where there are substantial grounds for believing that there is a real risk of irreparable harm, such as that contemplated by articles 6 and 7 of the Covenant, either in the country to which removal is to be effected or in any country to which the person may subsequently be removed. The relevant judicial and administrative authorities should be made aware of the need to ensure compliance with the Covenant obligations in such matters,” General Comment No. 31, CCPR/C/74/CRP.4/Rev.5, March 29, 2004.

23 Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations on the Fifth Periodic Report of Sweden, CCPR/C/74/SWE, April 24, 2002, para. 12. The failure of the Swedish government to effect any monitoring within the first five weeks of return is particularly disturbing. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), U.N., and other intergovernmental, nongovernmental, and humanitarian organizations, have concluded that detainees are most at risk for torture and ill-treatment within the first forty-eight hours of custody. See Human Rights Watch, “The Legal Prohibition against Torture” A Human Rights Watch Q and A March 2003 [online] (retrieved March 25, 2004). The Committee took the extraordinary step of requiring Sweden to report back to it in one year, instead of the standard five, regarding the steps the government took to ensure Egyptian compliance with the assurances and to offer evidence that the men were in fact not subject to treatment contrary to ICCPR article 7. The special session, held in July-August 2003, was closed. No public statements were issued by the Committee, but its annual report to the General Assembly made clear that it was not fully satisfied with the Swedish government’s response and that the Committee had decided to pursue certain outstanding issues with respect to the cases. See Report of the Human Rights Committee to the General Assembly, A/58/40(Vol. I), November 1, 2003.

24 Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations on the Fourth Periodic Report of New Zealand, CCPR/CO/75/NZL, August 7, 2002, para. 11.

25 Ibid.

26 CAT article 3 states: “No party shall expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

27Tapia Paez v. Sweden, Communication No. 39/1996, April 28, 1997.

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

29 See U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, General Recommendations, E/CN.4/2003/68, para. (f) regarding prison monitoring and private visits [online] (retrieved March 24, 2004); and International Committee of the Red Cross, “How Visits by the ICRC can Help Prisoners Cope with the Effects of Traumatic Stress,” Section on Private and Confidential Interviews with Prisoners, January 1, 1996 [online] (retrieved March 24, 2004).

30 Attia v. Sweden, op. cit., paras. 4.5, 4.7, 4.14., and 9.4.

31 Sibylle Kapferer, The Interface between Extradition and Asylum, Legal and Protection Policy Research Series, Department of International Protection, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, PPLA/2203/05, November 2003, para. 137 [online] (retrieved March 31, 2004). This study is currently under consideration by UNHCR.

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