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U.S. Fails to Block Torture Inspections

Rights: Unrestricted checks of prisons would be uncon- stitutional, Americans say. But other U.N. members prevail.


UNITED NATIONS — In its latest split with its usual allies here, the United States tried but failed Wednesday to block adoption of a new treaty authorizing on-site international inspections of prisons suspected of being used for torture.

Arguing that unrestricted prison inspections could conflict with safeguards in the Constitution's Fourth Amendment against "unreasonable searches" and impinge on state control of most American prisons, U.S. diplomats said the draft treaty as written is "seriously flawed" and should be revised.

But as proponents repeatedly noted in the debate here, the provisions apply only to countries that sign and ratify the treaty.

U.S. officials also acknowledged that they are concerned that the treaty could allow foreign critics to visit American military jails, including the detention center at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, now holding prisoners from the Afghan war.

Despite the U.S. objections, the treaty was approved by a General Assembly committee on a 35-8 vote, with 10 abstentions. In an earlier vote of 29 to 15, with eight abstentions, the committee rejected an American-backed amendment that would have forced new negotiations on the treaty, which was drafted after 10 years of protracted talks in which the United States was an active participant.

"We have to reject the U.S. position," said a delegate from South Africa. "This optional protocol has been worked on for 10 years, and I don't think we should wait another 25 years to reach complete consensus."

The U.S. amendment was opposed by all European committee members and all but one of the Latin American representatives. The exception, in an unusual alliance, was the ambassador from Cuba, which also adamantly opposes international visits to its prisons and was the most vocal supporter of the U.S. position here.

The United States also drew support from China, India, Japan and--in a recent shift--Australia, which has drawn fire for its detention policies on refugees.

In General Assembly forums--in contrast to the Security Council--the United States does not enjoy veto power.

The treaty is technically an optional "protocol" or amendment to a 1987 international treaty banning torture, which has been ratified by 130 countries, including the United States. Human rights advocates had long argued that without inspections of alleged torture centers, the 1987 treaty could not be enforced.

The protocol's authors have argued that its targets are countries where torture is routinely employed against accused criminals and political dissidents alike--not nations with independent judiciaries and democratically administered penal systems such as the United States. But at U.N. forums in the past, some European countries have backed calls from human rights groups for international observers to report on the use of chains, manacles and other restraints used on violent felons and on work crews in U.S. prisons.

The protocol was first approved earlier this year by the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Commission, and then submitted here this week to the Economic and Social Council, a standing committee of the General Assembly.

The protocol is now expected to be submitted for final ratification to the entire 190-member U.N. General Assembly, where majority approval is anticipated. The protocol would come into force after it had been adopted by the assembly and formally ratified by the legislatures of 20 nations.

An international group of legal experts would then be authorized "to establish a system of regular visits undertaken by independent and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty, in order to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment."

The move to block approval of the U.N. torture protocol was criticized by European and other diplomats here as another example of resurgent American unilateralism.

For most of this month, the Security Council was embroiled in a battle over U.S. opposition to the International Criminal Court, with European proponents of the court only reluctantly acceding to U.S. demands that American peacekeepers be exempted from the new tribunal's jurisdiction.

And Monday, the United States became the only country ever to rescind its pledged contributions to the U.N. Population Fund, contending that the money could be indirectly used to promote coercive family planning practices in China.

In deciding to halt U.S. financing for the U.N. agency, the Bush administration was overriding a recent State Department report defending the U.N. Population Fund's programs in China and recommending a continuation of U.S. financial support.

On Wednesday, the European Union, criticizing the U.S. decision, voted to provide the U.N. agency $32 million of the $34 million that had been cut by the administration.

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