Expert welcomes historic visit to United States and Guantánamo detention facility and affirms rights of victims of terrorism and victims of counter-terrorism


The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin,* today welcomed the completion of her technical visit to the United States and the detention facility at the U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, marking the first official UN expert visit to the site. The visit comprised three parts: the rights of victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the rights of detainees at the Guantánamo detention facility, and the rights of former detainees.

“The U.S. Government has led by example by being prepared to address the hardest human rights issues. I affirm the openness of the technical visit, the spirit of positive constructive dialogue that sustained it, and the singular importance of access to all detention sites affirmed by it,” Ní Aoláin said.

The Special Rapporteur held that the 9/11 attacks constituted a crime against humanity. Her meetings with victims and survivors underscored the devastating long-term consequences of 9/11 for individuals, families, and communities, including on gendered and generational lines. “While I commend the extensive legislative, social, symbolic, and financial action taken to support 9/11 victims and survivors, more needs to be done to fill significant gaps in realizing their rights to reparation, including comprehensive legislative provision to ensure the long-term security and reliability of compensation and medical entitlements,” she said.

She upheld the rights of victims of terrorism and found “the most significant barrier to fulfilling victims’ rights to justice, accountability, and transparency was the use of torture. Torture was a betrayal of their rights.”

On the Guantánamo site visit, the Special Rapporteur received all requested access to detention facilities and detainees, including “high value” and “non-high value” detainees. She identified significant improvements to the conditions of confinement but expressed “serious concerns about the continued detention of 30 men and the systematic arbitrariness that pervades their day-to-day, bringing severe insecurity, suffering, and anxiety to all, without exception.”

Every detainee she met lives with unrelenting, ongoing harms following from systematic practices of rendition, torture, and arbitrary detention. She explained, “for many, the dividing line between past and present is exceptionally thin and past experiences of torture live in the present, without any obvious end in sight, including because they have received no independent, holistic, or adequate torture rehabilitation.”

Despite the depth, severity, and evident nature of many detainees’ current physical and psychological harms, the detention infrastructure entails near-constant surveillance, forced cell extractions, undue use of restraints, and other arbitrary, non-human rights compliant operating procedures stemming from inadequate training; structural healthcare deficiencies; inadequate access to family, including the failure to facilitate meaningful communication; and arbitrary detention characterized by sustained fair trial violations. “The totality of these practices and omissions have cumulative, compounding effects on detainees’ dignity and fundamental rights, and amounts to ongoing cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” she concluded. “Closure of the facility remains a priority.”

The Special Rapporteur also met with repatriated and resettled detainees and their families, as well as government personnel in other countries. She identified serious shortcomings in the provision of the essential means that former detainees need to live a dignified life, including legal identity, health care, education, housing, family reunification, and freedom of movement. She found that these shortcomings contravened U.S. international law obligations, engaged before, during, and after transfer, including as regards non-refoulement-obligations of a more specific and compelling form when the individual has been tortured in its custody, requiring guarantee of adequate torture rehabilitation.

“The vast majority of former detainees continues to experience sustained human rights violations. Once transferred they have been left to fend for themselves, vulnerable to penury, social exclusion, stigma, and governmental inference. The U.S. Government does not have an adequate system to address the well-being of those transferred, or the failure of governments to respect their rights,” she found.

The Special Rapporteur made specific recommendations and concluded that the U.S. Government must ensure accountability for all international law violations, for victims of counter-terrorism and victims of terrorism. She concluded, “The time is now to undo the legacies of exceptionalism, discrimination, and securitization perpetuated by Guantánamo’s continuing existence.”

Ms. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism by the United Nations Human Rights Council. She took up her functions on 1 August 2017. Ms. Ní Aoláin is concurrently Regents Professor and Robina Professor of Law, Public Policy and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School and Professor of Law at the Queens University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her mandate covers all countries and has most recently been renewed by Human Rights Council resolution 49/10.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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