The Real Harm in Denying the UN Access to Bradley Manning

As you may have heard, the UN Special Rapporteur for Torture Juan Mendez has been denied access to Bradley Manning. Manning, you will recall, is suspected of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. documents to Wikileaks. He has been in a military jail in Quantico, Virginia in extremely restrictive conditions, which apparently includes being forced to stand naked for hours and confined to a jail cell for 23 hours/day.

Manning’s defense attorney has raised questions about his alleged mistreatment, and lodged a formal complaint with the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Torture Juan Mendez.

When there is a credible allegation of torture–anywhere in the world–and a request is made to the office of the Special Rapporteur on Torture, the Special Rapporteur has a mandate to “act upon receiving credible information suggesting that an individual or a group of individuals is at risk of torture at the hands, consent, or acquiescence of public officials.”

That is as true for Zimbawe as it is for the United States.  Unfortunately, the United States seems to be ‘prevaricating.’  Says Mendez:

“I am deeply disappointed and frustrated by the prevarication of the US Government with regard to my attempts to visit Mr. Manning. I understand that Pfc Manning does not wish to waive his right to an unmonitored conversation with me,” the human rights expert said. “My request for a private, confidential and unsupervised interview with Manning is not onerous: for my part, a monitored conversation would not comply with the practices that my mandate applies in every country and detention center visited. In fact, such forms of interview have been used by the Special Rapporteur in, at least, 18 countries over the last 6 years.”

“I raised my concerns, last Friday, with high-ranking officials of the Department of State and Department of Defense of the US Government and have asked them to reconsider their decision not to grant me an ‘official visit’ with Mr. Manning,” he said. “The United States of America has a key role in setting examples on issues concerning my mandate as Special Rapporteur on torture, which makes it a vital partner for engagement.”

The single biggest obstacle to the work of UN special rapporteur is non-cooperation by member states. For example, in October 2009, the previous special rapporteur for torture tried to investigate claims that Morgan Tsvangirai’s supporters were being systematically tortured by Robert Mugabe’s thugs. Upon arrival in Harrare he was unceremoniously blocked from leaving the airport.

It is this kind of official harassment that make the job so difficult.

The thing is, these kinds of human rights UN special rapporteurs really do serve as catalysts for human rights around the world. (Brookings has a great report making that point.) But it only works when governments are willing to let them in their country and accept some criticism. Those governments, in turn, are only willing to accept human rights investigators because of political pressure domestically or peer pressure from abroad; they are afraid of how it might look in the eyes of their friends and allies if they don’t consent to the visit of a UN special rapporteur.

This is why the United States’ behavior here is so troubling.  By denying Mendez access to Bradley Manning, the United States not only looks like it has something to hide about the treatment of this one individual. It is undermining the entire system of international human rights monitoring around the world.