From: Reuters
Published March 7, 2008 01:56 PM

U.N.'s Arbour says rights vital in terrorism cases

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, who confirmed on Friday she would leave her post at the end of June, said that countries cannot trample fundamental freedoms when fighting terrorism.

In remarks clearly directed at the United States and its allies, the former U.N. war crimes prosecutor said that the use of torture and secret renditions must be fully disclosed.

All detainees are entitled to due process and access to the courts, according to Arbour, who has drawn fire from Washington for her blunt criticism of its counter-terrorism methods since the September 11, 2001, attacks on America.

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"Let me emphasize once again the need for respecting human rights, as well as for greater transparency and accountability, when countering terrorism," Arbour told the U.N. Human Rights Council, presenting a final annual report of her four-year term.

"This requires maximum possible disclosure regarding practices of particular concern, including the use of torture and international transfers of detainees, as well as accountability for illegal actions," she said.

Charges of secret U.S. activities including extraditions, known as "rendition," have circulated for years. A European investigator said last year he had proof Poland and Romania hosted secret jails for the Central Intelligence Agency.

There are still about 275 detainees at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Most have been held for years without being charged and many have complained of abuse.

Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court judge, said her biggest struggle at the U.N. had been convincing governments to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice.

"Impunity for human rights violations is still present in all regions of the world and poses a serious challenge to the pursuit of justice," she said.

NEVER AFRAID OF CRITICISM

In her four years in the job, Arbour's candor has been attacked by some countries, but she told a media briefing ahead of the speech this was "inevitable."

"I tend to distinguish between criticisms that have a certain validity to them, especially those expressed in good faith, and those which often don't have much merit," she said, adding that she was not being forced out.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement praising Arbour's tenure as the U.N. human rights chief and her "extraordinary courage, energy and integrity in speaking out forcefully on human rights."

"She has never hesitated to incur the criticism of states or other entities by highlighting the victims of abuses, and the inadequacies of legal systems everywhere," Ban added.

The U.N. rights boss, who visited 20 countries including Iran in the past year, said the independence of the judiciary and the fate of activists had been major concerns on her tour.

In a parting shot at some Council members, she said in her speech that "allegations of bias, hypocrisy and dereliction of duty" against her or her staff were "outside the acceptable range" of debate.

"Such statements demean the Human Rights Council and betray the good faith efforts of all those working in the United Nations on very difficult and divisive issues," she said.

Sweden was among several Western countries to take the floor to praise Arbour's "untiring strength and independence."

U.N. chief Ban has to appoint her successor and the U.N. General Assembly must endorse his choice.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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