The United States has aligned itself with some of its fiercest and least democratic enemies in opposing efforts to strengthen an international treaty that outlaws torture, according to diplomatic sources.
Washington has found itself on the same side as Cuba, Libya, and Syria, among other states, in trying to block a proposal before the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva designed to give more teeth to the Convention Against Torture.
US diplomats insist they are not opposed to beefing up the 1987 UN convention, to which Washington is a party, but say they disagree with the international prison-inspection regime being proposed by their Latin American and European allies.
Human rights activists, however, are disappointed with the US stand.
"It's pretty scandalous that some states claiming to defend human rights are blocking this," says Mark Thomson, secretary general of the Geneva-based non-governmental Association to Prevent Torture. "If they succeed, it's really putting a spanner in the works in terms of implementing the convention in a meaningful way."
The new protocol to the Convention Against Torture, which is due to come to a vote today, would establish national and international inspectorates to ensure that prisoners are not being tortured, through visits to places of detention.
Washington has opposed the idea since it was first raised 10 years ago, arguing that the fourth amendment to the US Constitution prohibiting "unreasonable searches and seizures" meant it could not allow foreign prison inspectors to go where they pleased. "As a matter of principle, unrestricted authority granted to a visiting mechanism is incompatible with the need for checks and balances" argues Steve Solomon, head of the US delegation.
European negotiators say they have no quarrel with US constitutional reservations, but do not understand why Washington has tried so hard to convince other countries not to sign the protocol.
"The American arguments are fine for America, but we are disappointed that they have lobbied as hard as they have against adoption," says one European diplomat.
US negotiators have found their influence over other governments limited by the fact that the US is not currently a member of the UN Human Rights Commission, having been voted off the 53-member body last year. But they have played a vocal and active role on the working group concerned with the torture protocol, which is open to all UN members.
The US has proposed a weaker inspection mechanism by which inspectors would be sent to a country only through arranged visits at the individual government's request to discuss ways to prevent torture.
Proponents of stronger mechanisms say the US idea would water down implementation to meaningless levels.
"We have already compromised on the issue of ad hoc, surprise visits, which the protocol won't allow," says the European diplomat. "This text is as low as we can go."
When the protocol comes up for a vote at the commission, probably today, India, Syria, Libya, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia are expected to vote against it. But 25 countries are cosponsoring it, just two votes short of the majority needed, so both supporters and opponents expect the protocol to pass.
It will then be presented to the UN Economic and Social Committee in New York, and later go before the UN General Assembly. If the General Assembly adopts the protocol, it will recommend that member states ratify it.