U.N. envoy to raise Afghan, Iraqi killings with U.S.

GENEVA (Reuters) – A U.N. human rights investigator making an official visit to the United States later this month said on Wednesday that he would raise allegations of American troops killing Afghan and Iraqi civilians.

Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said he would also investigate whether the U.S. justice system held private military contractors accountable for any murders committed abroad.

“The big issue is the extent to which the United States is prepared to talk about anything happening overseas,” Alston told Reuters in a interview in Geneva ahead of his June 16-26 trip.

“I would like to understand more about the extent to which the American system of justice has adequately dealt with allegations of civilian killings in Iraq,” he said.

Alston provoked NATO’s anger last month when he said 200 Afghan civilians had been killed by foreign and Afghan troops so far this year, in addition to around 300 by Taliban insurgents.

His report was based on a May visit to Afghanistan, where more than 55,000 foreign troops led by NATO and the U.S. military are deployed. A NATO spokesman later conceded that civilians were mistakenly killed by foreign forces while hunting Taliban militants, but put the number in “low double figures”.

“The issue of private military contractors has come up, not just (U.S. private security firm) Blackwater, which are accused of activities that might have killed people. I’ll be looking at the question of impunity — is there a legal system effectively holding them to account?” Alston said in the interview.

U.S. INVITATION

The Australian law professor at New York University is making his visit at U.S. government invitation. He will meet federal officials in Washington before visiting Alabama and Texas where prisons have large numbers of death row inmates.

He plans to examine the death penalty issue, including allegations of racial bias in U.S. courts. Human rights activists say proportionately more African-Americans and other minorities are sentenced to death than white criminals.

“There have also been allegations of deaths in immigration detention,” Alston said.

Alston, in a speech presenting his annual report to the U.N. Human Rights Council earlier this week, voiced outrage at prison conditions worldwide. He called for appointment of a new U.N. envoy on the rights of detainees.

Prisoners are often “kept in conditions in which no representative in this Council would knowingly permit his or her dog to be kept”, he told the 47-member state forum.

Alston said on Wednesday that the U.N. investigator on torture, Austrian law professor Manfred Nowak, was doing an “absolutely super job” probing allegations of mistreatment of detainees, but that a broader mandate was needed.

“Torture can’t capture everything wrong in prisons. Detainees have fallen off the radar screen in their own right. We no longer give a damn about the conditions in which they are kept,” he told Reuters.

APPALLING CONDITIONS

“In most countries I’ve been to, prisoners are kept in utterly appalling conditions,” Alston said. Food was paltry and hygienic conditions often dismal in damp overcrowded cells.

Alston denounced “prisons run by prisoners” which he has seen in places including Brazil and Guatemala.

“It is a common phenomenon in Latin America. Gangs (of prisoners) offer cheap labor to handle discipline and food distribution,” he said. “It is a completely arbitrary regime that puts prisoners at the mercy of other prisoners”.

Western countries had also accepted lower standards for treating their prisoners, he said, adding: “How countries treat their prisoners gives you insight into their basic humanity.”

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