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United Nations Study on Secret Places of Detention

last updated Mar 24, 2010

The “Joint Study on Global Practices in Relation to Secret Detention in the Context of Countering Terrorism” (‘Secret Detention Study’) is the first comprehensive inquiry of independent experts of the United Nations into the incommunicado and unaccounted detention of terrorism suspects in the context of the so-called “war on terror”. The study develops further earlier inquiries conducted by the Council of Europe and European Parliament and provides a comprehensive analysis of the historical development and current practice of secret detention, including related activities such as “proxy detention” and “extra-ordinary rendition”. The study also includes a summary of the international legal framework applicable to secret detention and gives details on the personal stories of more than two dozen individuals who were victims of secret detention and interviewed for this study.

Atlas-of-Torture.org takes up the results of the study and provides an interactive map geotagging the secret places of detention covered in the report. Click on the pin and follow the link leading to the relevant section in the study.

View Secret Places of Detention in a larger map

The study is a joint product of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Martin Scheinin; the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak; the Working Group on arbitrary detention, represented by its vice-chair, Shaheen Sardar Ali; and the Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances represented by its chair, Jeremy Sarkin.

At the outset, the authors explain how secret detention is irreconcilably in violation of international human rights law and humanitarian law, including during states of emergency and armed conflict. Secret detention violates the right to personal liberty and the prohibition of arbitrary arrest or detention. Individuals deprived of their liberty in such a manner are invariably held outside the reach of the law without the possibility to resort to legal procedures, including habeas corpus. Detainees are typically also deprived of their right to a fair trial. Moreover, secret detention at the same time amounts to an enforced disappearance and is by definition incommunicado detention. Prolonged incommunicado detention may facilitate the perpetration of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and can in itself constitute such treatment. The authors also note that the practice of “proxy detention”, involving the transfer of a detainee from one State to another outside the realm of any international or national legal procedure (known as “rendition” or “extraordinary rendition”), often in disregard of the principle of non-refoulement, also involves the responsibility of the State at whose behest the detention takes place.

Secret detention in the context of counter-terrorism, the authors note, is not a new phenomenon. Historically, it was used by the Nazi regime and the former USSR as one prominent method to silence opposition. Striking similarities can also be identified between security measures in the 1970s and 1980s in the context of Latin America and in the last century in other regions such as Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The methods used then as now consist inter alia of broad emergency laws, the enhanced role of military and special courts, the practice of torture and/or ill-treatment, kidnappings (renditions), enforced disappearances and notably secret detention. The aim is always to have a deterrent effect because detainees would vanish without leaving a trace and no information would be given as to their whereabouts or fate.

The sub-chapter on the so-called “global war on terror” describes the progressive and determined elaboration of a comprehensive and coordinated system of secret detention of persons suspected of terrorism, involving the United States of America authorities and many other States in almost all regions of the world. The authors describe the legal and policy decisions taken by the United States of America authorities, and provide an overview of the secret detention facilities operated, and enumerate proxy detention sites and related practices of ‘extraordinary rendition’. The study also addresses the level of involvement and complicity of a number of countries.

The study further highlights that secret detention in connection with counter-terrorism policies remains a serious problem on a global scale, and provides an extensive list of cases and situations, which substantiate the existence of secret detention in all regions of the world. It becomes clear that secret detention and counter-terrorism are often interlocked with declarations of a state of emergency and forms of “administrative detention,” which allow prolonged secret detention and thus constitute an “enabling environment” created by states themselves.

In their conclusions, the experts reiterate that international law clearly prohibits secret detention, and if secret detention constitutes an enforced disappearance and is widely or systematically practiced, it may even amount to a crime against humanity. In spite of these unequivocal norms, the practice of secret detention in the context of countering terrorism is widespread and has been reinvigorated by the so-called global “war on terror”. Extraordinary powers are today conferred on authorities, including armed forces, law-enforcement bodies and/or intelligence agencies that operate in a legal vacuum or are only under restricted control mechanisms by parliaments or judicial bodies.

Moreover, the study makes clear that secret detention has relied on systems of trans-border cooperation. Crucial elements of international cooperation have included the free operation of foreign security forces in the territory of other States, the mutual exchange of intelligence information between States, complicity in “hosting” secret detention sites or providing proxy detention, and the transfer of alleged terrorists to other countries, where they may face a substantial risk of being subjected to torture. Most of the time secret detention was used as a defence shield to avoid any scrutiny and control – and make it impossible to learn about treatment and conditions during detention. With very few exceptions, too little has been done to judicially investigate these practices and to provide the victims or their families with any form of reparation.