Fifty-seven-year-old Manfred Nowak sits in a Vienna coffee house, sipping a cup of mint tea, and talks about the worst atrocities in the world -- inhuman dungeons and torture chambers, forgotten prisoners and abuses.
For example in the Nigerian city of Lagos, where the United Nations special rapporteur on torture and his team carried out a surprise inspection of a police station that had given itself the rather lofty title of a detention center. "I've never seen anything like it," Nowak says. "Between 100 and 120 severely tortured people crowded closely together. Three women among them, and children too -- the oldest aged 14. Men with untreated gunshot wounds and limbs that were literally rotting -- a common torture method in Nigeria."
No one was expecting him when he showed up at the police headquarters in Amman on the last day of his visit to Jordan. He ordered a secret cell to be opened. Behind the door lay a prisoner "in a terrible condition." He had been suspended above the ground by his wrists, which had been tied behind his back -- a classic torture method dating back to the Middle Ages. "He could no longer stand, walk or anything," Nowak says. "In these types of cases, emotional distance is impossible. You're fully involved."
You just have to try to forget such experiences as far as that is possible, he continues, making sure none of it affects to you too much -- even if that is "sometimes just not possible." And you have to try to constantly motivate yourself with the "small successes," he adds.
But the Viennese professor for constitutional law and human rights will not have too many positive experiences to recount when he presents his final report to the UN General Assembly in New York this week. His mandate expires in about five months, and the time has come to take stock.
Of course there have been success stories, some at least. In Togo, for example, he was able to obtain the release of 15 forgotten remand prisoners who had been locked in their cells and had no one looking after them. "We have many new friends in Togo now," Nowak says. And then there is Abkhazia, the breakaway Georgian province, where he tracked down a concealed prisoner. It took wardens using heavy duty tools five minutes to break open the completely rusted cell door.
But his overall survey is far from confident -- in fact he calls it "frightening." Torture is still "considered a peccadillo," he says, adding that this is now the case "even in developed countries." To him, the worst thing is that the West, which constantly emphasizes its ideals and values, has lost the moral upper hand.
Nowak has personally visited a dozen countries, from Mongolia to Paraguay. He has inspected many dungeons and jails and spoken to hundreds of prisoners. So he is all the more annoyed when he is denied access to prisons. To this day, he has not been allowed to visit the US military base in Guantanamo, for example -- at least not in order to conduct private, unsupervised interviews with detainees. The US government would not give him permission. But an essential prerequisite for Nowak's investigative missions is the right to decide himself what he wants to see or who he wants to speak to -- including without any prior appointment.
Ever since former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld authorized the use of so-called "enhanced interrogation" techniques in Abu Ghraib, "the United States has lost its moral leadership and authority," Nowak believes. "Today, when the Bush administration criticizes other countries for their human rights abuses, no one takes them seriously anymore."
But Europe has not succeeded in taking the place of the United States as the "driving force when it comes to human rights," the lawyer says. On the contrary, he believes the European Union is "seriously tarnished." European governments' cooperation with the CIA in the war on terror and their denial of secret detainee renditions and prison camps has weakened the EU, according to Nowak.
Europe's 'Seriously Tarnished' Reputation
Nowak's has also only had bad experiences in Russia. The UN official has received hundreds of calls for help from within the country since taking office three years ago. He has written dozens of urgent appeals to Moscow and decried human rights abuses there.
Then, in April of last year, he wanted to see the situation for himself in Moscow, the Caucasus and -- most importantly -- Chechnya. Everything had been arranged and was "ready to go." The flights had already been booked. Then Moscow suddenly remembered its own legal regulations, according to which no one is allegedly allowed to speak privately to prisoners. "Not acceptable," was Nowak's answer. The man from Vienna, whose manner is otherwise so charming, can be tough when he wants to be.
That makes it all the more astonishing that China, of all countries, allowed the UN rapporteur into the country. His predecessors had tried in vain for 10 years to be granted permission for such a visit.
What he saw in the prisons and prison camps of Beijing in 2005 still makes him frown angrily: "What is inhuman about the system is the psychological pressure," he says. He talks about the state's continuing "strong desire to re-educate people." Prisoners are not simply locked away; rather, "confessions" are forced out of them. In order to achieve this, civil rights activists, members of the Falun Gong movement, ordinary criminals and others are forced to sit still in their cells for hours at a time and memorize the penal code. In a prison in the north of the country, Nowak even met an African prisoner who was forced to endure this punishment -- even though he did not speak any Chinese.
But he has also concluded that China's ruling elite has long ceased being a "monolithic bloc." Nowak has identified reformist forces close to the Foreign Ministry, while the hardliners are attempting to preserve the communists' claim to power, especially within the intelligence service and security apparatus, according to Nowak.
Nowak believes these hardliners are especially to blame for a new "wave of repression," which is targeting more civil rights activists and dissidents in the run up to the Olympic Games being held in China next year.
But Nowak remains optimistic. "I am still hopeful that things will improve," he says, stroking his moustache. "Major events such as the Games can always shake things up."