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COMMITTEE AGAINST TORTURE MARKS ITS TWENTY-FIFTH ANNIVERSARY
Committee Holds Two Debates on Main Achievements and Challenges Facing it, and on Obligation of States Parties to Provide Redress for Victims of Torture
7 May 2013

The Committee against Torture this afternoon marked 25 years since its first session and held two panel discussions focused on identifying the main achievements and challenges faced by the Committee and on the obligation of States parties with regard to redress for victims of torture, in light of General Comment 3 on Article 14 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Ibrahim Salama, Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in his opening remarks said the Committee against Torture was the smallest treaty body in terms of the number of experts and this created a very interesting dynamic, both in focus and in methods of work.  The marks of the Committee were its creative thinking and learning from others.

Also in opening remarks, Claudio Grossman, Chairperson of the Committee against Torture, noted that torture unfortunately continued to be practiced in most countries on earth and this was possible due to the dehumanization of the victim, the torturer and the society at large.  But the world reacted and most States agreed that freedom from torture was a non-derogable right, that there was a duty to investigate and punish crimes of torture and to provide full and adequate redress and reparation to victims, and that individuals could not be sent to countries where they might be tortured. 

Xuexian Wang, Committee Expert acting as the moderator of the panel identifying the main achievements and challenges faced by the Committee against Torture, invited those who were not members of the Committee to use it as a platform to provide their view of the work of the Committee. 

The panellists were Juan Mendez, Special Rapporteur on torture, who said that in many countries there was an urgent need to establish mechanisms that could guarantee qualified, impartial and independent forensic examination of detainees;  Martin Bang, Permanent Representative of Denmark, who recognized that one of the future challenges facing the Committee was the heavy workload, and that a long-term solution must be found within the framework of the wider discussion on treaty bodies strengthening; Cheikh Tidiane Thiam, Permanent Representative of Senegal, who encouraged the Committee to continue with its efforts to support States to enact the absolute prohibition of torture; and Peter Splinter, Amnesty International, who said that the Committee’s task was extremely difficult and complex, not only in seeking to reveal the use and extent of torture and ill-treatment, but also in responding to their new manifestations and attempts to undermine the absolute prohibition.

Felice Gaer, Committee Expert acting as the moderator of the panel on the obligation of States parties with regard to redress for victims of torture, in light of General Comment 3 on Article 14, noted the decisive role played by the Committee in efforts to combat torture. 

Panellists were Elizabeth Abi-Mershed, Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, who spoke about a high degree of complementarity between the Commission and the Committee against Torture with regard to the standards being developed and the challenges both were facing; Mercedes Doretti, Chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, who stressed that General Comment 3 on Article 14 spelled out clearly both the rights of victims and the obligations of States in this regard; Christian Streeter, Permanent Mission of Chile to the United Nations Office at Geneva, who described measures taken by Chile to provide redress and reparation to victims of torture committed between 1973 and 1990; and Sarah Fulton, REDRESS, who said that achieving redress for victims of torture was hard and its ultimate purpose was the restoration of the dignity of the victim.

Taking part in the discussion were Ecuador, Switzerland and Argentina, as well as the following non-governmental organizations: International Disability Alliance, Association for the Prevention of Torture, Afghanistan Commission on Human Rights, International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Canadian Association of University Women and Freedom from Torture.

The next public meeting of the Committee against Torture will be at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 8 May, when it will start its examination of the initial report of Mauritania (CAT/C/MRT/1).

Opening Remarks

IBRAHIM SALAMA, Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the Committee against Torture was the smallest treaty body in terms of the number of experts and this created a very interesting dynamic, both in focus and in methods of work.  The marks of the Committee were its creative thinking and learning from others.

CLAUDIO GROSSMAN, Committee Chairperson, said that the Committee against Torture supervised compliance with the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment adopted in 1984, which currently had 153 States parties.  The commitment and the work of the Committee had greatly contributed to realizing the goals of the Convention.  As a result of the work of the Committee, many States had incorporated a definition of torture in national legislation, excluded from consideration in judicial proceedings confessions extracted under torture, investigated and punished the crime of torture taking into account its gravity, ratified numerous treaties including the Optional Protocol, the Rome Statute and others, and utilized the Istanbul Protocol which was an invaluable guide to doctors, lawyers and judges to prevent, identify and document cases of torture. 

Unfortunately, torture continued to be practiced in most countries on earth and this was possible due to dehumanization; torture was not about other human beings but about “sources of information”, “information assets” or “threats to society”, so that the individual disappeared.  Torturers were also dehumanized and they were defined by roles such as “security experts” who neatly compartmentalized portions of their lives.  This dehumanization extended to the society at large, which conveniently ignored what it did not want to know and continued to mind its own business.  The world reacted against torture and most States agreed that freedom from torture was a non-derogable right, that there was a duty to investigate and punish crimes of torture and to provide full and adequate redress and reparation to victims, and that individuals could not be sent to countries where they might be tortured.  In closing, Mr. Grossman reaffirmed the value of the absolute prohibition of torture and said that the legal tradition in international law also gave a resounding no.

Panel on Identifying the Main Achievements and Challenges Faced by the Committee against Torture

XUEXIAN WANG, Committee Expert acting as the moderator, said that the panel should be a platform for those who were not members of the Committee as onlookers often had a better view of the whole game and the work of the Committee.  Too much praise would blind the Committee and its members welcomed criticism. 

Presentation by Panellists

JUAN MENDEZ, Special Rapporteur on torture, said that the main purpose of the rapporteruship was to promote measures by which States could better protect human rights in their domestic jurisdiction.  The mandate did not depend on a State’s ratification of an international human rights treaty and could address cases where a Government was not a party to the Convention against Torture because prohibition of torture was a jus cogens norm.  Unlike treaty bodies, the mandate did not require the exhaustion of domestic remedies and the competence of the Special Rapporteur to review an individual complaint did not have to be expressly recognized by the State concerned.  Mr. Mendez described how he dealt with communications, urgent appeals and allegation letters and the methods of work in the assessment of the allegations. 

Both the Committee against Torture and the Special Rapporteur upheld the principle that the burden of proof of allegation of torture should never be shifted to the alleged victims and whenever there were reasonable grounds, impartial and in-depth investigations must be launched ex officio into all allegations of torture by the prosecutor, the investigative judge or the respective court.  Even if national legislation was in accordance with international standards, national judiciaries often failed to comply with their obligation to launch an investigation and to order medical examinations of alleged victims in order to obtain evidence of torture or ill-treatment.  In many countries there was no systematic forensic assessment at the time of detention and release and there was an urgent need to establish mechanisms that could guarantee qualified, impartial and independent forensic examination of detainees and that this should not only depend on a request made by a legal authority.  While both the Committee and the mandate addressed individual cases of torture, the Special Rapporteur also addressed thematic issues which represented current concerns in the context of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment and though his annual reports identified, elaborated and pressed for further development of international standards and practices.

MARTIN BANG, Permanent Representative of Denmark, said that the fight against torture was very close to the heart of Denmark, which was the main sponsor of the comprehensive omnibus torture resolution at the General Assembly and of the focused thematic resolutions on torture at the Human Rights Council.  This year’s Human Rights Council resolution gained the support of all countries and had 65 co-sponsors.  The resolution highlighted the importance of full holistic and specialized rehabilitation services and urged States to provide redress for victims of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; reparation should include restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition, taking into account the specific needs of the victim.  Denmark congratulated the Committee against Torture and the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture in their role as treaty bodies frontrunners in creating specific mechanisms to respond to the increasingly-recognized problem of reprisals against those who cooperated or sought to cooperate with the United Nations and its mechanisms.  The Committee against Torture was a fundamental stakeholder in the combined effort to fight torture and one of the future challenges facing it was unquestionably the heavy workload.  To address this problem, Denmark had introduced a resolution at the sixty-seventh the General Assembly which had authorized the Committee to meet for an additional week per session as a temporary measure, from May 2013 to November 2014, but noted that a long-term solution must be found within the framework of the wider discussion on treaty bodies strengthening.

CHEIKH TIDIANE THIAM, Permanent Representative of Senegal, congratulated the Committee against Torture on its anniversary which marked an important landmark in the work of the Committee.  The role of oversight had been played together with other treaty bodies, the Universal Periodic Review and other human rights mechanisms of the Human Rights Council which together contributed to the promotion and protection of human rights.  Senegal was able to very early ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1986.  The recent examination of the periodic report of Senegal by the Committee was recognition of the quality of its efforts in the strengthening of the protection of human rights.  Senegal was committed to continuously combat impunity and all alleged perpetrators of torture were investigated and tried by courts.  As an extension of existing legislation and evidence of its continuing commitment to prevention of torture, Senegal had ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against in 2006 and had established a National Observer in 2009 with a view of preventing acts of torture in places of detention.  Finally, Mr. Thiam encouraged the Committee to continue with its efforts to encourage States to enact the absolute prohibition of torture.

PETER SPLINTER, Amnesty International, said that the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment under international law was absolute and non-derogable, and yet, out of the 150 countries monitored by Amnesty International in 2011, torture and ill-treatment had been documented in 101 countries.  The Committee’s task was extremely difficult and complex, not only in seeking to reveal the use and extent of torture and ill-treatment, but also in responding to their new manifestations and attempts to undermine the absolute prohibition.  The Committee had adopted one of the first decisions finding a State party to be in violation of international human rights law for its involvement in the extraordinary rendition of an individual to a country where that person had been subjected to torture, despite the sending State’s attainment.  The growing use of diplomatic assurances by States to justify the transfer of individuals to a country, where the person would be at risk of torture, presented a particular challenge to the Committee.  Diplomatic assurances were a dangerous and unreliable mechanism that allowed a sending Government to circumvent the absolute prohibition of non-refoulement in article 3 of the Convention. The death penalty was the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and the Committee had called for more transparency on the use of the death penalty and had recognized the cruel nature of the secrecy surrounding executions.  Amnesty International stressed the importance of maintaining the independence of the treaty bodies to determine their own rules of procedure and working methods.

Discussion

Ecuador congratulated each Committee Expert for their dedication and commitment and said that the change in the relations in this era of terrorism and state security, as witnessed in regression that eliminated human rights, was of concern to all.  Guantanamo Bay was not just a place, but a state of mind and the example of how rights were eliminated in the era of terrorism. 

Switzerland congratulated the Committee on it excellent and efficient work over the past 25 years, and noted the effectiveness of the new practice of the List of Issues which would enhance the reporting procedures.  Switzerland asked how the Committee intended to increase the effectiveness of its work in the future, particularly in light of reducing the backlog.

International Disability Alliance congratulated the Committee on uncovering new forms of torture and ill-treatment and on its expanding interest on the situation of persons with disabilities, particularly in the case of mental health institutions. 

Association for the Prevention of Torture said that the universal ratification of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was the first step towards the absolute prohibition of torture.  The Association for the Prevention of Torture asked the panellists about ways to better apply the guidance given by the Committee during the review of reports of States parties.

FERNANDO MENENDEZ, Committee Expert commented on the remark of Ecuador concerning Guantanamo Bay.

Panel Reflecting on the Obligation of States Parties with Regard to Redress for Victims of Torture, in Light of General Comment 3 on Article 14

FELICE GAER, Committee Expert acting as the moderator, said that in the effort to combat torture, the Committee had played a decisive role and there were many who argued that the purpose of the Convention was to prohibit torture; this was inaccurate and the Convention was based on the premise that torture was already prohibited in international law and its purpose was to further strengthen those prohibitions.

Presentation by Panellists

ELIZABETH ABI-MERSHED, Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, said that there was a high degree of complementarity between the Commission and the Committee against Torture with regard to the standards being developed and the challenges both were facing; this complementarity should not be taken for granted.  The Commission had already taken note of General Comment 3 which reflected key challenges in the work on the prevention of torture; the Commission had already started to cite this General Comment in its work.  In the Inter-American system, more specific approaches to torture were being pursued for the past 15 years and Ms. Abi-Mershed cited several cases that illustrated major steps, including the case of the street children in Guatemala, which was one of the first times the Commission had given close consideration to the need to take circumstances of victims into account in understanding torture and its effects.  General Comment 3 made an effort to incorporate the importance of gender in reparation and remedy.  Responding to massive human rights violations and ensuring reparations in those contexts was an ongoing challenge and the Commission was currently dealing with a series of cases in which individuals were questioning access to and the efficacy of reparations programmes set up to deal with the human rights violations of dictatorships and internal conflicts.

MERCEDES DORETTI, Chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, said that the twenty-fifth anniversary of the work of the Committee against Torture came at a time of enhanced focus on victims of torture and their rights to receive redress and rehabilitation.  General Comment 3 on Article 14 spelled out clearly both the rights of victims and the obligations of States in this regard.  The mandate entrusted to the Fund by the General Assembly in 1981 had been established when no other torture-related mechanisms existed and was visionary and victim-centered.  The General Comment on Article 14 placed the responsibility of rehabilitation and redress for victims squarely on the State party; in many countries, the provision of assistance to victims was not a priority, either due to lack of capacity or political will and in most cases it was non-governmental entities that continued to carry the main burden of this human rights obligation.  Ms. Doretti highlighted two challenges facing the Fund: protection of those who were at the service of victims of torture who were often subjected to intimidation and reprisals; and the responsibility of States to investigate and prosecute non-State actors who perpetrated acts of torture, which when not done deprived victims of their right to redress, compensation and rehabilitation. 

CHRISTIAN STREETER, Permanent Mission of Chile to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that torture was widely and systematically practiced by the dictatorship in Chile between 1973 and 1990.  Measures undertaken by the Government of Chile to provide reparation to victims of torture included the setting up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1990 and the setting up of the National Commission on Political Prisoners and Torture in 2003, the so-called Valech Commission.  This body had received testimonies of over 35,000 persons and it had established the obligation of States to provide rehabilitation to victims of torture, including pensions and health, education and housing benefits.  The National Human Rights Institute had examined 32,000 new cases from February 2010 till August 2011.  In the experience of Chile, measures that were effective in preventing and eradicating torture included the ratification of international instruments, submitting periodic reports to treaty bodies, providing legal assistance and information to victims, and the establishment of the national preventive mechanism. 

SARAH FULTON, REDRESS, said that achieving redress for victims of torture was hard and its ultimate purpose was the restoration of the dignity of the victim.  The provision of redress was key to the whole purpose of the Convention and to making the struggle against torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment more effective.  Ms. Fulton then highlighted four points addressed in the General Comment that were vital: the need to respond seriously to the impact of trauma, poverty, discrimination and protection issues faced by victims; ensuring that the right legislative structure was in place to enable victims of torture to seek redress; the role that States had to play in empowering victims to obtain redress; and ensuring that redress procedures were informed by individual victim’s needs and that the reparation measures that were provided were adequate, effective, comprehensive and commensurate with the gravity of the harm suffered.

Discussion

ALESSIO BRUNI, Committee Expert, took the floor to pay tribute to Mr. Joseph Voyame of Switzerland, the first Chairperson of the Committee against Torture.

Afghanistan Commission on Human Rights said that torture was an act against the dignity of the human being.  Victims of torture in Afghanistan did not get any compensation or justice.  There was a need to work hard to stop the culture of impunity connected with crimes of torture. 

Argentina reaffirmed the obligation of States to provide rehabilitation and compensation to victims of torture and welcomed the attention given to minimum standards in the treatment of prisoners by the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture.   Argentina took a number of steps to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Committee, including a sensitisation campaign on the prevention and eradication of torture.

International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims said that one of the major strengths of General Comment 3 was that it was very relevant to victims on the ground; the main challenge was the implementation in practice of both General Comment 3 and the Human Rights Council resolution on rehabilitation, and it remained to be seen how they would be taken up by the Universal Periodic Review and other human rights mechanisms.  It was important to offer practical guidance to States on how to offer rehabilitation services to victims.

Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, acknowledged the extent in which the jurisprudence of the Committee against Torture provided guidance to other treaty bodies and said the Committee often was a pioneer in new and innovative measures.  The discussion today was focused on torture, while cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment remained on the margins, including the related issues of redress.

Canadian Association of University Women expressed appreciation for bringing into the discussion torture perpetrated by non-State actors and asked why States were reluctant to address this issue.

Freedom from Torture said that they were looking into practical impediments to obtaining redress for victims of torture and noted that this was almost impossible for those living in poverty, even in countries as advanced as the United Kingdom. 

NORA SVEAASS, Committee Expert, said that seeking redress took a lot of courage and required a support system; that was why it was important to work together with victims’ organizations in seeking redress and rehabilitation.  This was particularly important for women victims of torture, especially for victims of sexual violence in conflict settings.
 
Closing Remarks

CLAUDIO GROSSMAN, Committee Chairperson thanked all the participants in the discussion and reiterated the appreciation of the Committee to all the panellists, all of whom gave a special dimension of excellence to the event. 


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