Vol 11 No 2 Summer 2000
  • 1. General Comment 14 adopted

    Physicians the Human Rights-UK welcomes the adoption by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the General Comment on the right to the highest attainable standard of health. The General Comment was approved at a closed session of the Committee on May 11th. PHR-UKís convenor, Bernie Hamilton, took part in the the earlier open session that formed part of the Committeeís deliberations.

    The Covenant is the leading legal source for the international human right to health and the Committee's interpretation of what constitutes the Right to Health comprises the most authoritative that exists. The Special Rapporteur appointed to coordinate the programme on the General Comment spent a year consulting with a large number of NGOs and other institutions from around the world. At the Committeeís open session on May 8th he publicly singled out the International Federation of Health and Human Rights Organisationís conference, hosted last year by PHR-UK at St Albans, as being particularly helpful to him.

    The final text of the General Comment has yet to be made public.

  • 2. Israel and Torture

    Israel's use of physical pressure as an interrogation method, and its denial that this amounted to torture has been a constant concern of human right defenders. Those unfamiliar with Israel's legal system have had particular problems in understanding the principle that rules can sometimes be broken to avert a disaster and the way in which judges engage in dialogue with plaintiffs and respondents. Human rights defenders have looked to international bodies to provide clarity on the issues, and have supplied them with evidence.

    PHR-UK has played its part. On Human Rights Day 1996, Secretary Harold Hillman joined a handful of NGOs who attended a talk by Israel Supreme Court Judge Gabriel Bach in an effort to engage him in a dialogue on the interrogation methods permitted by the Supreme Court. In May 1997, PHR- UK organised a letter to the UN Committee against Torture, signed by the heads of all members of the International Federation of Health and Human Rights Organisations, which set out concerns about the interrogation methods. At the UN Committee hearing, much use was made of an autopsy report written by Derrick Pounder, who was at the time a member of PHR-UK's Executive Committee. In October 1997, PHR-UK, together with its Dutch sister organisation the Johannes Wier Foundation, conducted an investigative visit to Palestine. Its report "A False Dawn: Palestinian Health and Human Rights Under Siege in the Peace Process" said that the Israeli government should immediately halt all practices amounting to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees. It went on to say that the Israeli Medical Association should take proactive steps to address allegations that Israeli doctors actively participated in torture. (This report is available from PHR-UK. Send a cheque for five pounds payable to ĎPhysicians for Human Rightsí to the address on page 1 - Ed.)

    In February 2000, it was reported that the Israeli government has abandoned plans to amend Israeli law in order to permit the use of physical force during interrogations. PHR-UK welcomes this news. To assess these developments, PHR-UK has invited Yuval Ginbar, who played a leading role on behalf of the Israeli human rights organisation, B'tselem, to address us on UN Day in Support of Torture Victims.

    Below, we set out our own account of events, which we hope will provide a useful background to Yuval Ginbar's talk.

    Israel's interrogation methods unacceptable to UN Committee against Torture

    In April 1994 the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) made its first ever use of the term "unacceptable" to describe interrogation methods employed in the State of Israel. Israel described these methods as "moderate physical pressure". At its 1994 consideration of Israelís initial report, CAT held the practice of moderate physical pressure as a lawful mode of interrogation to be unacceptable. [CAT/C/SR.184 (28 April 1994) para. 43 (3) (4)] The methods, had been permitted by Israel since the report of Israelís Landau Commission Inquiry of 1987, and were held to be necessary to save lives at risk from time bombs.

    CAT responds to press reports that an Israel court had legitimised torture

    In November 1996, CAT learned through press reports that Israelís Supreme Court acting as the High Court was permitting the practice of moderate physical pressure, by overturning lower court interim injunctions prohibiting such practices. At one point during the High Court hearing, Israeli State Attorney Shai Nitzan was reported as saying:

    "No enlightened nation would agree that hundreds of people should lose their lives because of a rule saying torture is forbidden under any circumstances" [New York Times, November 16, 1996]

    On November 22, 1996, CAT requested Israel to explain this development in writing by January 31 1997, which Israel did [CAT/C/33/Add.2].

    UN Special Rapporteur on Torture tells UN Commission on Human Rights that interrogation methods together amount to torture

    On November 11, 1996 the Israeli government responded to a letter of July 14, 1995 from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nigel Rodley. Israel argued that moderate pressure was permitted under international law, as evidenced by the European Court of Human Rights judgment of April 25 1978 regarding the five practices of interrogation employed by the UK in Northern Ireland in Ireland v UK 1978 [Publís of E.Ct.H.R. Series A, vol. 25, 1978 pp. 67-67]. That judgment had reversed a European Commission on Human Rights finding on the grounds that the methods were not of sufficient intensity and cruelty to amount to torture. A letter from the Israeli Government to the UN Commission on Human Rights (CHR) dated Feb. 20, 1997, made the same point [E/CN.4/1997/116]. Nigel Rodley included this response in his report to the CHR 53rd session, held in 1997; but concluded that, used in combination, as they frequently are, such techniques do amount to torture [E/CN.4/1997/7].

    Amnesty Internationalís Intervention

    Addressing the CHR on March 11, 1997, Amnesty Internationalís representative Ms McElree argued that Israel "had effectively legalised torture". She said that international acquiescence to this could undermine the fabric of international human rights protection established by the UN during the previous fifty years [E/CN.4/1997/SR.3].

    CAT considers Israel's response.

    Debating the filming of the hearing.

    The first day of Israelís appearance before CAT started in the presence of a large number of observers from the UN, the media and NGOs. The first issue concerned filming. Reuters wished to film the proceedings, Israelís Ambassador suggested they just film the opening few minutes. A rapporteur pointed out that the opening minutes were normally given over to prepared comments by the State party. A Committee member suggested they film the session where the Committeeís conclusions were announced.

    Another member pointed out that journalists were permitted at public meetings. A journalist explained that Reuters needed time to film as much as they wanted at public meetings and that editorial decisions were taken subsequently. This was accepted and Reutersí cameras were permitted access.

    Israel explains its methods

    The European Court of Human Rights 1978 judgment which reversed the finding of the European Commission on Human Rights of Jan 25, 1976, [Publís of E.Ct.H.R., Series B, # 23 I, Case of Ireland v UK pp.101-139] had raised a question about "the suffering of particular intensity and cruelty that the term torture implies". Israel contended that its interrogation methods were not of sufficient severity to constitute torture. The delegation was reluctant to reveal precisely what interrogation methods were employed because uncertainty is a feature of interrogation. It did respond to specific points however.

    The use of cold air conditioners to chill suspects and the deprivation of either food or use of the WC were not permitted. Sleep deprivation was viewed as appropriate in essential cases, where the location of a bomb was sought. Handcuffing was used during interrogation in order to ensure the life and health of the guards. Head covering was used to prevent prisoners identifying members of the security forces or other prisoners. Loud music was played to prevent prisoners talking with one another; but not as torture, since the interrogators also heard this music and would be unlikely to torture themselves.

    A CAT rapporteur discusses shaking

    In answer to questions by CAT Rapporteur, Dr Sorensen, the use of violent shaking was described by a delegation member as very rare and neither to cause pain nor likely to produce severe pain. Severe pain was not seen as arising from moderate physical pressure. Dr Sorensenís references to Dr Derrick Pounderís 1995 autopsy report on Abd al-Samad Harizat, which concluded that the cause of death was violent shaking, did not appear to alter the delegationís view on this point.

    The Committee concludes

    The Committee disagreed with Israelís position. It concluded that the use of the above methods as well as restraining in very painful positions and the use of threats including death threats constitute torture, even when not used in combination, as apparently they usually were. In saying this, the Committee did not abandon the severity test used by the European Court of Human Rights over twenty years previously. Instead, it provided a clear statement about how certain methods of interrogation met that test, "even when not used in combination". The Committee recommended that such interrogation methods cease immediately,and that Israel report to the Committee no later than September 1, 1997 on the measures taken in response. [CAT/C/X/XVIII/CRP.1/Add.4]

    CAT writes to Israel

    The Committee Chair wrote to Israel at the end of its November 1997 session, pointing out that the requested communication had not been received. A reply was received in 1998 and Israel appeared in May 1998. In December 1997, an Israeli NGO, "LAW" reported that the High Court of Israel had postponed a ruling on the general use of interrogation techniques in prisons.

    1998 Reports

    The international human rights NGO, SOS-Torture, reported that, on 7th January 1988 the High Court of Israel refused to issue an order prohibiting the intelligence service from employing the stress position and hooding as an interrogation technique. Amnesty International repeated their concerns at the UN CHR on March 17, 1998 [AI Index: MDE15/24/98].

    UN Special Rapporteur on Torture says torture not restricted to "ticking bomb"

    Nigel Rodley in his report to the UN CHR 1998 54th session, [E/CN.4/1998/38] referred to the consistency between his previous report and that of CAT [A/52/44, para. 257]. He cited a complaint which indicated that "moderate physical pressure" was not restricted to cases where a "terrible disaster" looms concerning Mr. Tarabieh [E/CN.4/1998/38/Add.1, para. 214]. Mr. Tarabieh, a consultant to Human Rights Watch (HRW), was reportedly interrogated in Jalameh prison near Haifa in August 1996 about his work for HRW. He was allegedly hooded, tied to a chair with hands and feet bound, forced to sit for hours in contorted positions and denied regular meals.

    CAT Hearing on Israelís second periodic report

    The hearing was on Friday 15 May and CATís responses were on Monday 18 May. Israel claimed it was held to a higher standard than others. It criticised CAT for asking 70 questions in the morning and expecting a response by the afternoon; and suggested that some questions were for the onlookers. The use of the same member as Rapporteur at two consecutive hearings was questioned. CAT reiterated its conclusions from earlier hearings that Israel's interrogation methods breached Artís 1, 2 & 16 and should cease immediately. [CAT/C/33/Add.3, 6 March 1998]

    The Committee might have concluded that Israelís policies constitute a material breach of the Convention [under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Art. 60(3)] and advised the UN Secretary General of this. It appears that CATís approach was to continue to dialogue, rather than risk seeing a State Party excluded from the treaty process.

    UN Human Rights Committee reaches similar conclusions to CAT

    At its hearing of July 15 and 16, the UN Human Rights Committee concluded that Israel's interrogation methods violated Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which says no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

    Israel High Court hearings on interrogation techniques

    On May 20, 1998, acting as the High Court the 9 Supreme Court justices argued with the State Attorneyís representative on the need for legislation regarding interrogation. At that time, ordinary rules were violated under what is known as the "necessity defense" that permits infractions to prevent a major catastrophe. [Reported in the New York Times May 22, 1998]

    On September 16, 1999, the Supreme Court, acting as the High Court of Justice, ruled that Israel's interrogation methods amounted to torture and were therefore illegal. [Public Cte Against Torture in Israel et alv. State of Israel et al]

    There were some proposals in 1999 to introduce legislation to permit physical pressure in urgent situations, but these were abandoned early in 2000.

  • 3. PHR-UK Welcomes Appointment of Dr. Ole Rasmussen to the UN Committee against Torture

    The States Parties to the UN Convention against Torture have elected Dr. Ole Rasmussen to replace Dr. Bent Sorensen on the Committee against Torture. The Committee, which comprises ten independent experts, periodically reviews the implementation of the treaty by each of the States Parties to the treaty. It may also consider claims by other States Parties or by an individual within its jurisdiction, that a state has violated the treaty. Unusually, the Committee may, with the agreement of the State Party, visit that state to investigate serious allegations of torture. States Parties are obliged to either try torturers or extradite them, as the Committee reminded the United Kingdom in November 1998, following the arrest of Senator Pinochet.

    Dr. Rasmussen is no stranger to human rights workers. Like his predecessor, Bent Sorensen, he is associated with the Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, and is on the editorial board of its quarterly journal Torture. Also like Dr. Sorensen, Ole Rasmussen has been an active member of the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and in that capacity inspected places of detention in a number of European countries. During his first Committee session this May, Dr. Rasmussen asked the USA about prison overcrowding and its link with a lack of prison activities or education and the effect of that on inter-prisoner violence. He also mentioned the imprisonment of adults and juveniles together, which can invite abuse, and the effect that "supermaximum" prisons have on inmates' mental health. Not surprisingly, he inquired about the special training that prison doctors receive, particularly on how they should respond to signs of violence. The Committee raised several of these points amongst their concerns in their concluding comments to the USA.

    PHR-UK campaigned to get Dr. Rasmussen on the Committee. When we heard, a year ago that Dr. Bent Sorensen was planning to retire, we wrote to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and to the Government of Denmark, urging them to ensure that another health professional was appointed to the committee. PHR-UK believes that all six of the core UN human rights treaty monitoring bodies could benefit from the presence of a health professional, and this is the basis of our "Six for Six" campaign. At present, only one other treaty committee, that on the rights of the child, has a doctor among its members. We also think that there should be a health professional among the 200+ staff of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who could provide an expert opinion about health aspects of the many human rights issues with which that Office deals. This has also been the subject of correspondence from us to the government here in the UK. We are confident that Dr. Rasmussen will make a worthy successor to Dr. Bent Sorensen, and we wish both of them every success in the defense of human rights.

  • 4. 250 Ways to Raise Money

    There are all sorts of ways in which a charity with limited liability can raise money, but we want to hear ideas from our 250 members. We're asking for one from each member, and we are offering a prize of a book to the member whose idea makes PHR-UK the most money.

    Write your idea out now, and address it to the Editor at the address on the front cover of this Newsletter. One way in which you can give to us is through letting us share in those little bonuses that life sometimes throws our way. Donating a speaker's fee is one handsome way of benefiting the charity. If you receive royalties for a publication you have written, that would help. One person recently donated their windfalls after their building society became a bank to enable a human rights advocate and two students to travel from London to Edinburgh and spend a weekend lobbying a heads of government summit about human rights. The students learned a great deal about how human rights gets done, the advocate achieved far more than he could have done alone and a number of heads of state were provided with valuable human rights information that enabled them to contribute knowledgeably to a debate at the summit and come up with a sound recommendation. One member sends us a generous cheque every time they receive a copy of our Newsletter. It helps PHR-UK's funds, it makes the editorial team feel appreciated and, like a reward to Pavlov's dogs, it encourages us to perform again. We also receive anonymous donations. We know who signs the cheques of course, but we have promised to keep the donors' identities secret. So if you don't want a public thank you, be sure to send us a note to that effect when you send us your cheque. It is no coincidence that the first year of our five-year plan was spent in registering as a ltd. company and as a charity. This was to enable PHR-UK to raise money and to ensure that PHR-UK was publicly accountable for that money. When you give money to us, you know that it is being used lawfully in accordance with our human rights mandate. There are tax benefits from being a charity, which means that we receive more money than if we were not a charity. PHR-UK uses its new status to seek money from a variety of sources. We have been to the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We have been to Geneva and Brussels.

    Our November conference was partly paid for by a bookseller. Money we raise in this way is tied to specific projects, such as an investigative report or human rights training. PHR-UK needs money that is not tied. Money that can be used for such things as fresh computer disks, postage stamps, a rail fare, an international phone call. All these items add up, and it is our members' money that goes towards these expenses. We are actively approaching our members to help with PHR-UK's development, and you may receive a letter from us around the same time that you get this Newsletter. Of course it's nice to be asked, but please don't wait if you can help now. Let us have your ideas about fundraising, or just send us a cheque. We became a charity and a company to strengthen PHR-UK, we just need your contribution to finish the job.

  • 5. Success at the UN Commission on Human Rights

    NGOs pronounced themselves relatively satisfied with the 56th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, held in Geneva from mid March to the end of April this year. The Commission, which comprises 53 states elected by the UN General Assembly, adopted a resolution which criticised "disproportionate and indiscriminate use of Russian military force, including attacks against civilians". It also called on the Government of Russia to establish a commission of enquiry, and authorised UN rapporteurs on torture, on extra-judicial killings and on violence against women, to visit Chechnya. The resolution followed a critical report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, who had visited Chechnya at the start of the Session, but was not able to follow her planned itinerary.

    China escaped censure through the adoption of a no action motion on the proposed resolution criticising its human rights record. The vote was 22 to 18 with 12 abstentions. This reflected China's influence in the international community, rather than the judgment of human rights organisations, who reported a worsening of human rights in China in 1999.

    The big gain lay in the resolution to create a rapporteur on human rights defenders. The resolution was supported by 70 states, and 50 of the 53 Commission members voted to adopt it. Only China, Russia and Rwanda abstained. Under the resolution, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will appoint someone for three years. The Rapporteur will intervene where human rights defenders are being harassed, and seek support for the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1998. Courageous individuals take enormous risks to monitor and oppose human rights violations in different parts of the world. Those who speak out may be harassed, imprisoned, killed or disappeared. This new mechanism to help protect them will be welcomed by all who cherish human rights.

  • 6. PHR-UK Tells International Health Educators about its Educational Programme

    PHR-UK was invited by MEDACT to a meeting of educators to exchange information on international health education. The meeting, which was held at Great Ormond Street Hospital, in London, attracted about 25 people from around the country. PHR-UK member Professor Andy Haines, Head of the Dept of Primary Care and Population Sciences at Royal Free and UCL Medical School, started the meeting by providing an overview of the international dimensions of health. This was followed by a discussion on the implications this had for health education.

    Participants were then asked to describe their current work in health education. Bernie Hamilton spoke about PHR-UK's Special Studies Module in Health and Human Rights, designed by Derek Pounder and Rachel Maxwell at the University of Dundee. It was available free on the PHR web-site, and was consulted and downloaded regularly by people in many different countries. Bernie explained that, because of its SSM and its ten years experience in human rights, PHR-UK was increasingly being asked to provide human rights education or training. He said that a Health and Human Rights course was to be provided on ten Wednesday evenings, starting in April 2001. Each session would be led by a different expert,and it was hoped that this would be accredited as professional continuing education.

    Peter Hall described PHR-UK's proposed training course on torture and human rights for health professionals from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. This arose from recommendations made to two of these countries by UN human rights committees, following a report of an investigative visit by PHR-UK. The eight day course includes perspectives on torture,the immediate and longer term consequences of torture, the impact of displacement, treatments available, support systems, medical ethics and human rights law.

    PHR-UK members Christine Pourgourides and Gilles de Wildt spoke about their respective courses at St. George's Medical School and at the University of Birmingham. Following a presentation on a course run out of Sweden's Karolinska Institute, involving internships in developing countries, participants discussed a number of common problems, and agreed to try to share information and meet again.

  • PHR-UK Addresses UN in Vienna

    PHR-UK Chair, Dr. Peter Hall was among a distinguished panel of four invited to address the Tenth UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders ancillary meeting on Genocide. Speaking of PHR-UK's investigative visit to Rwanda in July 1994, Dr. Hall pointed out that genocide had occurred despite the international laws clarified at Nuremberg and subsequently. He said the genocide was not spontaneous and relied on low tech weapons. It demonstrated the power of propaganda to demonise a targeted group in a genocide which was led by the educated classes. Christianity was not able to prevent it, and the role of Belgium, France and international financial institutions had been problematic. Dr. Hall said that the UN could have prevented the genocide and that, although Rwanda was a member of the Security Council at the time, allowing Rwanda to participate in Security Council deliberations on the crisis was unhelpful. He said that Rwandans were not intrinsically more likely to commit the crime of genocide than any other group, and that he marvelled at the ability of African people to tolerate the unbearable and to co-exist after such horrors. Dr. Hall illustrated his talk with video extracts and slides, depicting an execution, a hospital and church where massacres had taken place and Westerners being airlifted from Rwanda, as their Rwandan colleagues were left behind to face the genocide. PHR-UK's Dr. Andrew Carney was also featured in the video. The discussion which followed was very intense,and when Leah Gifford of the US Department of Justice asked what would we do differently if we could role back the clock, all the panelists, which included Canadian Professor William Schabas and New York therapist Yael Danieli, had something to say. Dr. Hall took advantage of his April visit to Vienna to meet with members of an expert panel on the death penalty. These included Tufts University Professor Hugo Adam Bedau and Peter Hodgkinson, Director of the Centre for Capital Punishment Studies at the University of Westminster.

  • 8. PHR in Washington

    Bernie Hamilton visited Len Rubenstein Executive Director of PHR, in the new Washington office this April. It was the first time the two had met since Len's visit to London last November for the IFHHRO Conference hosted by PHR-UK. PHR was very busy working on testimony to be given to Congress the following day, following a series of interviews with refugees from Chechnya. In an op ed for the Boston Globe, Len called for an independent investigation of alleged war crimes in Chechnya. Recalling the consequences of the failure to label the systematic ethnic killings in Rwanda in 1994 as genocide, Len said that impunity corrodes efforts to protect civilians from wanton abuse by military forces. Bernie also met with PHR Advocacy Director Holly Burkhalter, with whom he had worked when Holly directed the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. Holly's recent contribution to a round table on humanitarian intervention was published in The Nation on May 8. In it, Holly called for the creation of a standing UN rapid-response force to react quickly to incipient genocide. She also advocated an enhanced UN peacekeeping command centre at the UN HQ, as well as mobile command centres elsewhere to service a rapid deployment to suppress genocide in accordance with the Genocide Convention. Holly went on to suggest Security Council briefings by the High Commissioners for Refugees and or Human Rights, as soon as crimes started. She listed indicators that warn of mass killings to come; stigmatisation, discrimination and targeted killings of ethnic minorities, a sharp increase in weapon imports, growth of a heavily armed militia and the broadcasting of hate-filled political speeches. Under Len's leadership, PHR has developed a strong voice for human rights in Washington, and PHR-UK is very pleased to be able to bear witness to that.


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