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Committee against Torture marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Convention against Torture

Committee against Torture

4 November 2014

The Committee against Torture marked today the thirtieth anniversary of the adoption of the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, hearing an address by the High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein and a message from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. The Committee also held two panel discussions, one on the promotion of the universal ratification of the Convention and another on the implementation of the Convention by States parties.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, High Commissioner for Human Rights, in his opening remarks said that the Convention against Torture was possibly the most comprehensive and powerful existing instrument of international law but despite the progress, every day and on every continent, women, men and children were deliberately and atrociously tortured by State agents. He stressed continuing challenges to the implementation of the Convention, including the use of unprecedentedly brutal violence against targeted ethnic and religious groups by non-State armed groups and the grim human rights situation of migrants. The Committee should continue its exemplary work in adapting the Convention’s norms to new forms of torture and ill-treatment, including gender-based violence, domestic violence, female genital mutilation and trafficking.

In his message, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that torture continued across the world with devastating impact on individuals and societies, and stressed the crucial role of civil society in fulfilling the objectives of the Convention against Torture. States should take meaningful steps to eradicate torture and rehabilitate victims; governments had the duty to protect and not oppress people and torture had no place in the society the United Nations was striving to build.

Claudio Grossman, Committee Chairperson, said that all States should ratify the Convention against Torture and should not forget that the absolute prohibition of torture was a norm of customary law. Much remained to be done and the Committee against Torture was particularly concerned about the continuing reports of reprisals against individuals who engaged with treaty bodies.

Essadia Belmir, Committee Vice-Chairperson and moderator of the panel on promoting the universal ratification of the Convention, said that States must overcome their hesitance to ratify the Convention against Torture without reservations and enter into a constructive dialogue with the Committee. It was important to highlight the importance of the Convention against Torture Initiative which encouraged States to ratify the Convention and assisted them in overcoming technical obstacles.

The panellists were Juan Mendez, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, who addressed the panel in a video message; Carsten Staur, Permanent Representative of Denmark to the United Nations Office at Geneva; Emmanuel Decaux, Chairperson of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances; and Mathew Sands, Legal Adviser, Association for the Prevention of Torture.

Felice Gaer, Committee Vice-chairperson and moderator of the panel discussion on the implementation of the Convention by States parties, said that the challenge today was how to enforce the Convention. Over the years, the Committee had adopted a number of general comments which focused on the implementation of the provisions of the Convention and its Optional Protocol. General comments dealt with issues such as the obligation of States to incorporate the definition of torture in national legislation and investigate all allegations of torture and punish those found guilty, as well as gender-based violence and the seeking of redress by victims of gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, and trafficking.

The panellists in the discussion on the implementation of the Convention by States parties were Mohamed Aujjar, Permanent Representative of Morocco to the United Nations Office at Geneva; Milos Jankovic, Member of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture; Mauro Palma, former President of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture; and Gerald Staberock, Secretary-General of the World Organization Against Torture.

In concluding remarks, Mr. Grossman thanked the panellists, Committee Experts and civil society representatives who had enriched the dialogue today and noted the extraordinary value of the provision in the Convention which allowed individuals to file claims against their States.

Speaking in the discussion today were Brazil, United States, Argentina, Guatemala, France, Germany, Switzerland and China.

The following non-governmental organizations spoke: the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims and the Centre for Civil and Political Rights.

The next public meeting of the Committee will be held at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 5 November, when it will start its consideration of the sixth periodic report of Ukraine (CAT/C/UKR/6).

Opening Statements

ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that 30 years ago the international community, confronted with terrible violations of human rights by military dictatorships, had adopted the Convention against Torture, possibly the most comprehensive and powerful existing instrument of international law. It had strengthened the recognition that torture was a crime so repugnant that its prohibition must be a fundamental norm of international law, binding all States without exception, and it remained one of the few unequivocal obligations that the international community had embraced. The Convention had also established the legal definition of torture and the steps the States must take to eliminate it. Despite the progress made, every day and on every continent, women, men and children were deliberately and atrociously tortured by State agents.

New forms of torture and ill-treatment continued to challenge the Convention: non-State armed groups were using unprecedentedly brutal violence against targeted ethnic and religious groups, and it was essential that accountability for gross human rights violations was established in order to avoid repetition. Secondly, the human rights situation of migrants around the globe was increasingly grim; it was encouraging that the Committee had consistently applied the Convention to those situations and had held that asylum seekers and undocumented migrants should never be detained, or if at all, only as a measure of last resort. Other contemporary forms of torture and ill-treatment included gender-based violence, domestic violence, female genital mutilation and trafficking, and the Committee should continue its exemplary work in adapting the Convention’s norms to such practices and helping victims seek remedies for the injustices they had faced.

BAN KI-MOON, United Nations Secretary-General, in a written message read out by IBRAHIM SALAMA, Director of the Human Rights Treaty Division, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that torture continued across the world with devastating impact on individuals and societies. Civil society played a crucial role in fulfilling the objectives of the Convention and the Secretary-General called on States to meet their reporting obligations to the Committee against Torture and take meaningful steps to eradicate torture and rehabilitate victims. Governments had the duty to protect and not oppress people and torture had no place in the society the United Nations was striving to build.

CLAUDIO GROSSMAN, Chairperson of the Committee, in his opening remarks, thanked the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations Secretary-General and acknowledged the contribution of the Committee Experts to the achievement of the goals of the Convention. Thirty years after the adoption of the Convention, 156 States had ratified the instrument, while positive changes in a number of countries occurred as a result of the consideration of State parties’ reports and the issuance of the Committee’s concluding observations; those changes included the ratification of the Optional Protocol by some countries and the abolition of the death penalty in others. All States should ratify the Convention and should not forget that the absolute prohibition of torture was a norm of customary law. Much remained to be done and the Committee was particularly concerned about the continuing reports of reprisals against individuals who engaged with the Committee. The Committee had undertaken a number of steps to prevent reprisals, including the appointment of a Rapporteur on reprisals, and stressed that it had zero tolerance in dealing with reprisals.

Panel One: Promoting the Universal Ratification of the Convention

Presentation by the Panellists

ESSADIA BELMIR, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee and panel moderator, called on the remaining 39 States to ratify the Convention. Unfortunately, torture and ill-treatment continued and it was the most vulnerable among peoples who were the victims; it was important to state that torture affected not only the victims but also the society that tolerated it. States must overcome their hesitance to ratify the Convention without reservations and enter into a constructive dialogue with the Committee against Torture. It was important to highlight the importance of the Initiative on the Convention against Torture which encouraged States to ratify the Convention and assist them in overcoming technical obstacles.

JUAN MENDEZ, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, in a video message, stressed that the universal ratification of the Convention had not yet been achieved and it was a question of great concern that torture and ill-treatment had not yet been eradicated, including in the context of the fight against terrorism. The Special Rapporteur expressed his full support to the Convention against Torture Initiative and said that the thirtieth anniversary of the Convention must be used to reinvigorate the commitment and the efforts to eradicate torture. It was important to understand obstacles to the absolute prohibition of torture, and for that a multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder approach must be applied.

CARSTEN STAUR, Permanent Representative of Denmark to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that the prohibition of the use of torture was absolute and that there were no exemptions; it was prohibited in all circumstances, including in a state of conflict or public emergency. The universal ratification of the Convention must be achieved and it was important to understand why some countries hesitated to make this commitment. The Convention against Torture Initiative aimed at universal ratification and implementation of the Convention against Torture within the next 10 years and worked to create renewed attention to the Convention and initiate a dialogue with countries that had still not ratified it. The universal implementation of the prohibition of torture would require a very strong focus on the legal sector in each country over the coming years; police, prosecutors, courts and prisons would largely be at the centre. It would be a major challenge, but the fight against torture was at the heart of the protection of personal integrity and safety, and at the core of their relations with authorities and governments as such.

EMMANUEL DECAUX, Chairperson of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, said that some 30 States members of the United Nations still were not party to or had not ratified the Convention. Since the Vienna Conference the incentives to ratify the Convention had multiplied and recently the Human Rights Council had introduced a double mechanism to spur ratification of core human rights instruments as a requirement to obtain a seat on the Council. It was not enough to aim for universal ratification of the Convention but to strive to its effective implementation.

MATHEW SANDS, Legal Adviser, Association for the Prevention of Torture, spoke on behalf of MARK THOMSON, Secretary-General of the Association for the Prevention of Torture, saying that governments bore the ultimate responsibility for ensuring international obligations to prevent torture and to address its effects, but it was often civil society organizations which raised awareness of such obligations and which contributed to efforts aimed at ending the practice of torture. The Convention against Torture provided States with detailed provisions which described the essential aspects of effective torture prevention, prohibition, punishment and redress; its ratification demonstrated the willingness of States to end torture and it promoted good governance, the rule of law and security through a system of accountability and international review. Ratification of the Convention against Torture was an important first step in the process to end practices that led to ill-treatment and torture and one which brought with it a number of key benefits.

LAWRENCE MURUGU MUTE, Chairperson of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Africa, provided his contribution in writing.

Discussion

Brazil said that it had in place policies on freedom from torture and in 1989 had acceded to the Convention and had created a national system for the prevention and eradication of torture in line with its international obligations. United States said that the Convention against Torture was a core international human rights treaty and affirmed the essential principle that under no circumstances was torture allowed. Argentina had prohibited torture in domestic legislation and said it was vital that States accepted regional and international supervisory mechanisms, including for places of detention. Guatemala was aware of the challenges ahead in the full compliance with the provisions of the Convention against Torture and asked all States to support the important Convention against Torture Initiative. France welcomed the remarkable work done by the Committee and said that combating torture was its priority; torture could not be justified under any circumstances and France would continue to work on its universal prohibition. Germany said it was now time to renew the commitment to combating torture which remained a scourge worldwide, and encouraged States which had not yet done so to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. The fight against torture was a priority of the human rights policy of Switzerland which remained committed to working towards the universal ratification and effective implementation of the Convention against Torture throughout the world.

Panel Two: Implementation of the Convention by States Parties

Presentation by the Panellists

FELICE GAER, Committee Vice-chairperson and panel moderator, said that the challenge today was how to enforce the Convention; the Committee had adopted a number of general comments which focused on the implementation of the provisions of the Convention and its Optional Protocol. States should incorporate the definition of torture in national legislation, investigate all allegations of torture and punish those found guilty. General comments also addressed the issue of gender-based violence and stated the fact that rules of evidence and procedure must afford equal weight to the testimony of women. The Committee also stated that victims of gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, and trafficking could also come forward and seek redress.

MOHAMED AUJJAR, Permanent Representative of Morocco to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that the presence of Morocco in the core group of the Convention against Torture Initiative was an additional pledge of the unequivocal and irreversible commitment that Morocco took for the effective promotion and protection of human rights in the context of a strategic vision and a democratic and authentic societal project that placed the preservation of the dignity of the human being and citizen at the centre of the action of the State. In 2013, Morocco decided to accede to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and its ratification had spurred a profound reflection about the appropriate national preventive mechanism. The National Human Rights Council was fully involved in combating torture and played the role of the national preventive mechanism.

MILOS JANKOVIC, Member of the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture, said that the Convention against Torture was exclusively concerned with the eradication of torture and ill-treatment and strived to ensure that all of the 156 States parties of the Convention exercised full jurisdiction over the acts of torture. Countries had clear obligations to investigate all acts of torture and ill-treatment even in the absence of a claim; ending impunity for torture and providing redress to victims was a crucial obligation of each State. Although it had been 30 years since the adoption of the Convention, detainees still faced a number of deficiencies in the procedural safeguards relevant for their protection against torture and ill-treatment. Effective medical and forensic documentation could bring evidence of torture and other ill-treatment to light so that perpetrators might be held accountable, stressed Mr. Jankovic and added that the burdensome lack of resources in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights prevented the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture from conducting field visits and so implementing its mandate.

MAURO PALMA, former President of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, said that over the past 25 years the field of the Committee’s actions had expanded considerably, also due to the increased number of modalities of deprivation of liberty by a public authority. In their fight against international terrorism, more and more States adopted measures focussed on prolonged police custody, closed their eyes on incommunicado detention in secret places and implemented the expulsion of terrorist suspects to so-called torture countries under diplomatic assurances, so reopening the Pandora’s box and questioning the absoluteness of the prohibition of torture. The preventive system of bodies established at different levels were doing an excellent job to keep this trend under control, but were facing a number of challenges, including the tendency towards less transparent procedures, operations and detentions in the context of the international fight against terrorism, which hindered the positive responsibility of law enforcement officers. Because the credibility of the preventive action against torture was undermined, each time allegations of torture or ill-treatment were not properly investigated and those responsible were not held to account for their actions, impunity for law enforcement officials increased.

GERALD STABEROCK, Secretary-General of the World Organization Against Torture, took up the issue of the implementation gap from the point of view of civil society and took great courage in how civil society had developed over the past 30 years. Torture had many facets but was always a result of policies and laws, which meant that it could be eradicated; the key elements of eradication were a strong legal framework, safeguards and transparency, but the law alone was not sufficient if it did not change the culture of torture – a qualitative change of law must happen. The question of changing institutional cultures and ensuring accountability were of crucial importance and were inter-connected. Nothing prevented better than knowing that there would be sanctions. Re-focusing on accountability required clear political will and commitment, ethical prosecutorial responsibility, and a sea change in the way one looked at accountability and seeing accountability as something positive. Also needed was more evidence-based research on why investigations were hardly ever successful, on factors that impeded investigations and on innovative independent mechanisms of investigations.

Discussion

The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims said that there was an increased focus on putting the victim at the centre of discussion, but action was still missing; the Committee should consider ways to promote the rehabilitation of victims, and ensure that its work was informed by their experiences. China said that it had made important efforts since it had ratified the Convention in 1989 and had made sustained progress in legislation and guaranteeing human rights, justice and institutionalizing civil rights. Centre for Civil and Political Rights raised a number of questions, including the implementation of the Committee’s concluding observations and the adoption of an assessment method to track the implementation.

A Member of Parliament of Uganda and a representative of the National Preventive Mechanism of Torture of Paraguay addressed the meeting in a video message.

Concluding Remarks

CLAUDIO GROSSMAN, Committee Chairperson, thanked the panellists, Committee Experts and civil society representatives who had enriched the dialogue today and noted the extraordinary value of the provision in the Convention that allowed individuals to file claims against their States.

– See more at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15249&LangID=E#sthash.aImvMQX4.dpuf

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