Nowak’s Burden

A human rights expert on the use of torture, burden sharing and the War on Terror

Manfred Nowak

Austrian Manfred Nowak, Special Rapporteur on Torture for the UN | Photo: Boltzmann Institute

Manfred Nowak has dedicated his career to human rights. Currently acting as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, a professor of Constitutional Law and Human Rights at the University of Vienna, director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Human Rights, the human rights lawyer is one of Austria’s leading human rights advocates.

Speaking at Webster University on Dec. 3, Nowak spoke about the recent challenges to the absolute prohibition of torture, which is a breach of international law as laid out in the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture – made all the more urgent in light of the abuses at U.S. prisons in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. The lecture was one of a series of events marking the 60th anniversary in December of the signing of the to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Nowak travels widely and has seen a great deal of the darker side of human nature and political corruption.  From Jordan to Mongolia to Tibet, he traced the locations of the worst abuses, returning repeatedly to a world map between the slides of his presentation marking the states he had visited.  In the face of all this ugliness, he exudes an unflappable calm that in itself seemed to help make meaningful action possible – and ease the sense of despair many continue to feel given the alarming concern of the resurgence of this crime since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Bush Administration’s refusal to comply with a multitude of international standards.

In a subsequent interview at his uncluttered offices at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights on the Freyung, Nowak seemed tired. With fresh media coverage of Obama’s first days in office and his prompt decision to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, he had been in high demand for interviews in the Austrian media.

But he likes to talk and seems always ready to elaborate on his thoughts and experiences. With the new U.S. Administration, the question of accountability is back in focus. When asked if prosecution of the Bush Administration for its violation of international law is feasible, Nowak demurred. His job, he said, was not to provide solutions to political issues, but to analyze human rights abuses and provide recommendations. He was clear, however, on what he thought should happen.

“Torture is a serious human rights violation,” Nowak said, “Every individual case should be thoroughly investigated by an independent body and if it is established that torture has been practiced, those responsible should be brought to justice.”

But rather than immediately put former President George W. Bush and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on trial, Nowak found the victims should be given primary attention and receive reparations for their suffering, whether in the form of rehabilitation or monetary compensation.

“Apologizing,” Nowak stated, “is also a way of providing justice to the victims.”

Though the solution to this problem ultimately lies with President Obama and the new U.S. Attorney General, Nowak expressed full confidence in the new Administration, revealing the same optimism that seems to have embraced the world since the U.S. election last November. Referring to President Obama’s decision within his first hours in office to close the detention facility at Guantánamo and suspend military tribunals responsible for those prisoners, Nowak said he was “very encouraged.”

“[Obama] knows what he is doing,” Nowak said. “It is important to change – to stop practices that were violating international law – and to make sure that the U.S. complies with human rights obligations.” The next step, he said, “is to find out the truth.”

The immediate problem is what to do with the prisoners. Burden sharing, Nowak explained, is a responsibility of the entire international community. European states should act in solidarity with the U.S., he said, and accept released prisoners once Guantánamo is closed (see Der Standard, “Nur billig, wenn wir unseren Beitrag leisten,” Jan. 21, 2009).

Many of the prisoners, though known to be innocent, cannot return to their homelands where they fear further torture and abuse. Austria has thus far refused to accept these ex-detainees – for which Nowak was “ashamed” – in contrast to Germany, England and Portugal that have agreed on various terms.

“It is a question of ethics and solidarity,” he claimed, “and it would be a small signal to take two or three, to show that we are willing to cooperate.”

Nowak finds it ironic that the same country that called for Guantánamo to be closed during the European Union/U.S. Summit in June 2006 would reject such a small sign of solidarity, and that the same newspapers, particularly the Krone Zeitung, that praised him for his own appeals to former President Bush, was now criticizing him for his “crazy idea” to accept innocent detainees. This he blamed on the populism of right wing parties and on xenophobia, in which Austria is certainly not alone.

But ultimately, it comes down to leadership:

“Neither the Federal Chancellor nor the Minister of Foreign Affairs, nor anyone else, apart from the Green Party, has so far demanded that Austria should contribute to this global burden sharing,” he said.  Now he dismisses the issue. “Austria has missed its chance.”

But while the U.S. and Europe have found common ground, the closing of Guantánamo has not ended the human rights violations elsewhere. China, for example, where Nowak made an official visit as UN Rapporteur on Torture in 2005, still implements extensive “reeducation” techniques on political prisoners, essentially “breaking the will” of dissidents through methods he described as mental, rather than physical, torture.

A country much closer to home, however, may pose a more frightening dilemma. When asked about the violations of the Russian Federation, the unmistakable optimism conveyed when discussing developments in the U.S. dissolved to a distinctly darker mood.  Nowak is “very concerned” with  Russia’s treatment of young soldiers and with the handling of Chechnyans and other minorities from the Caucasus. After arranging an official mission to the Russian Federation, including Chechnya, in Oct. 2006, he was denied entry at the last minute when the government “found problems” with his intention to speak privately to detainees.

On that trip he would have met with journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya, known for her opposition to Kremlin’s handling of the Chechnyan conflict. She was assassinated on Oct. 7, 2006, the day Nowak was set to arrive.

Despite his optimism with the new U.S. administration, the lessons of the Bush years are hard to escape, Nowak said. The world “has not become safer” through the War on Terror. He fears “illegal methods” have been counter productive, “playing into the hands of the terrorists.”

They had succeeded only in undermining the foundations upon which Western democracies are built – specifically the rule of law, pluralism and human rights.

“It doesn’t work if, after these terrible terrorist attacks, a state gives up these important values,” Nowak said.  The Americans, above all, should know this:

“A man who trades a measure of freedom for a measure of security will, in the end, have neither.” – Benjamin Franklin

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