Credit: Photo by Anadolu Agency/Getty; Intervened with crayon, aquarelle and texts by Marcelo Brodsky, 2021
Torture is an international crime, prohibited absolutely, everywhere and always. It should never occur. Justice means first and foremost that no person anywhere is subjected to torture. This should happen because all States are obligated to prevent torture.
Unfortunately, at least 141 States continue to practice torture. Knowing it to be a crime, officials usually deny it has occurred and obstruct attempts to investigate. Thus, torture is not only severe pain or suffering. It’s also censorship. Silencing survivors ensures the continuation of impunity.
For IRCT, the first step to ending impunity and allowing survivors to participate in justice processes is to break that silence by credibly >Exposing Torture whenever and wherever it occurs. Next, >Strengthening Laws provides the means to prevent torture recurring. Finally, >Building Capacity in State actors and civil society ensures anti-torture laws can be implemented, and when broken, torture is investigated and justice prevails.
‘fairness in the way that people are treated.’
Breaking the silence, compelling an acknowledgement that torture has occurred, is the essential first step to making States change their behaviour. The IRCT works with other leading campaigning, legal and human rights organisations to leverage forensic evidence, which can be used to expose torture and hold perpetrators accountable though public advocacy and strategic litigation.
We also focus on exposing torture practices that are widely prevalent and should be banned, such as conversion therapy and forced anal examinations, as well as exposing the international trade in tools used for torture.
Recent IRCT interventions to expose torture in >Belarus, >Iran and >Colombia illustrate the impact such exposure makes.
A forensic expert assessment by IRCT exposes “compelling evidence” of “a coordinated policy and practice of systematic torture and ill-treatment against Belarusian citizens” detained for protesting 2020’s rigged presidential elections in Europe’s last dictatorship.
The dual national British-Iranian development worker was released from six years imprisoned as a hostage in Iran after suffering treatment that IRCT experts, in a report delivered to the UK foreign secretary which made headlines in the British media, found to be “highly consistent” with torture.
Mass protests in Colombia against the social and economic policies of President Ivan Duque have been met by a brutal response from police. Has that use of force amounted to torture and other ill treatment? IRCT experts concluded live ammunition was being used on and had caused the deaths of individuals.
UN Convention against Torture
Each State Party shall ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.
Once torture has been credibly exposed, State perpetrators can no longer deny it is taking place and victims should no longer be left without access to justice and reparations, including their right to rehabilitation.
An important aspect for IRCT’s mission to eradicate torture is ensuring that national anti-torture laws and government policy comply with international standards. This change starts and ends at the national level where the IRCT and its members are leading advocates for change. By working with its members during reviews of their States by the UN Committee Against Torture the body that monitors implementation of the Convention Against Torture (CAT), and the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review both located in Geneva, the IRCT can advocate for strengthening national anti-torture laws and policies to reflect the perspectives and experiences of survivors. We also advocate directly with UN and regional human rights mechanisms to develop strong international anti-torture standards that reflect the perspectives and experiences of survivors.
Recent IRCT work to Strengthen Laws includes in >Nigeria >Uganda and with the >UN Special Rapporteur
‘public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy.’
UN Convention against Torture
1. Each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law. The same shall apply to an attempt to commit torture and to an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture. 2. Each State Party shall make these offences punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature.
Nigeria ratified CAT in 2001. But for two decades, the country refused to be reviewed by the Committee. In November 2021, the Committee went ahead anyway, and IRCT’s member in Nigeria, Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA), was there. So, for the first time, were Nigerian officials.
Ugandans are tortured with appalling regularity. So too are many of the 1.5 million refugees the country hosts. So when Uganda was reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council, our member in Uganda, the African Centre for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (ACTV), was ready to brief diplomats on what needs to change.
With input from the IRCT, the recent report by the UN’s top anti-torture official marked an important milestone for the understanding of accountability for torture, including in investigation, victims’ rights and participation, and taking a more holistic approach to reparations.
Advocating at the Committee
Treaty rules require that State parties to the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) submit a written report on how they are preventing torture and providing rehabilitation to its survivors to the Committee Against Torture every four years. The Committee, which is made up of ten independent experts, then uses the report to question officials from that State during two days of hearings at the UN headquarters in Geneva, before issuing a series of recommendations to the State. Civil society groups, like IRCT members, can also submit reports to the Committee for consideration, to inform its questions and recommendations. In 2021, the IRCT helped its members from Bolivia (IETI) Kyrgyzstan (Golos Svobody), Nigeria (PRAWA) and Serbia (IAN) to secure what we considered strong and focused recommendations from the Committee during its review of those States. As a result, the recommendations effectively reinforce key advocacy priorities of IRCT members in those countries. IRCT support included capacity development on UN advocacy and support with writing national advocacy reports and engaging with the Committee in Geneva.
So Does Advocacy Work?
The short, and encouraging, answer is: Yes. In 2021, the IRCT published an independent evaluation of the impact its advocacy at UNCAT and the UPR generated for the work of 15 surveyed members and the human rights situation in their countries. The evaluation concluded that the IRCT’s UN advocacy was “highly relevant and creates significant results”.
Credit: Rhona Goodarzi
“The IRCT helped us build constructive dialogues with UN treaty bodies, which convinced them to issue strong recommendations to the Lebanese State. We now use these recommendations to advocate for a stronger anti-torture law, better safeguards in places of detention and a new National Preventive Mechanism.”
What is the Universal Periodic Review?
Started in 2008, the UPR is a unique process in International Human Rights Law: A review of all 193 UN Member States on their human rights records – regardless of which human rights treaties the State in question has ratified or not – convened by the elected State-members of the Human Rights Council and involving diplomats from any and all other UN Member States. It’s a big process! Much like the treaty monitoring procedure of CAT, the UPR allows IRCT members to advocate for stronger anti-torture laws and policy through their written input and direct advocacy with diplomats conducting the review. The final outcome of the UPR is a series of recommendations from States participating in the review, which are then either accepted or simply noted by the State under review. The UPR process has now completed its third cycle, meaning all States have been reviewed three times.
UN Special Rapporteur on Torture:
The report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture (SRT), delivered to the UN General Assembly in July 2021, found that torture and ill-treatment “continue to be practised with almost complete impunity throughout the world, and victims of such abuse or their relatives rarely obtain the redress, reparation and rehabilitation to which they are entitled under international law.” The report was a powerful indictment of States’ failure to prevent torture or provide rehabilitation to its survivors. The IRCT submitted expert evidence to the SRT to support the drafting process. The report marked an important milestone for the understanding of accountability and is expected to generate stronger global acceptance of standards on accountability for torture including key IRCT priorities such as investigation and documentation, victims’ rights and participation in accountability processes and taking the more holistic approach to accountability.
Victims have a right to reparation.
This refers to measures to redress violations of human rights by providing a range of material and symbolic benefits to victims or their families as well as affected communities. Reparation must be adequate, effective, prompt, and should be proportional to the gravity of the violations and the harm suffered.
“If we only perceive accountability as criminal justice then success will always be limited because the focus will be off those other actions that can bring accountability. The evidence we have at the IRCT of a victim-centred understanding of accountability is that exposing torture is also accountability, naming perpetrators and having an investigation is also accountability, even if it does not lead to a criminal justice process. Expanding the conceptual understanding of accountability matters to victims, and everyone else fighting to eradicate torture.”
A Conversation with Nils Melzer, Former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture
Mexico’s ongoing 15-year ‘War on Drugs’ has unleashed terrifying police violence. Tens of thousands of Mexican citizens have been tortured with impunity. As well as providing rehabilitation to survivors, IRCT member the Collective Against Torture and Impunity (CCTI) trains independent experts to document torture using the internationally agreed Istanbul Protocol.
The Committee for Prevention of Torture in Africa (CPTA) was established by the African Commission in 2009 to promote the absolute prohibition of torture and ill-treatment. In 2021, the IRCT was invited to contribute to the development by the CPTA of a new early warning system to be used by the Committee to react to emerging situations of torture and ill-treatment on the continent.
Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) tortured citizens with complete impunity. Amid national outrage, IRCT member PRAWA played a leading role in convincing the Nigerian government to disband the unit in 2020 and retrain its officers. PRAWA’s director was also appointed to the independent Investigative Panels, at both state and federal level, to gather evidence of torture and ill-treatment.
UN Convention against Torture
1. Each State Party shall ensure that education and information regarding the prohibition against torture are fully included in the training of law enforcement personnel, civil or military, medical personnel, public officials and other persons who may be involved in the custody, interrogation or treatment of any individual subjected to any form of arrest, detention or imprisonment.
Strengthening CPTA to prevent torture in Africa
Every day across Africa, countless ordinary people, activists, journalist, teachers, trade unionists, LGBTI+ persons, politicians, and minority groups are tortured and ill-treated in contexts ranging from elections to protests, poverty to discrimination. Many of these victims end up languishing in prisons, with very little recourse to remedies. The Committee for Prevention of Torture in Africa (CPTA) was established by the African Commission in 2009 to promote the absolute prohibition of torture and ill-treatment as enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and set out in the Robben Island Guidelines, named after the island near Cape Town where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27-year sentence.
Every year the CPTA receives hundreds of requests to intervene in cases, and therefore asked expert organisations to help it design a systematic approach it could take to receive and act on allegations of torture, or when there is an imminent risk of political oppression or torture. In 2021, the IRCT participated as an expert in the development by the CPTA of a new early warning system to be used by the Committee to react to emerging situations of torture and ill-treatment on the continent. Based on IRCT expertise and documentation tools, the warning system takes a strong victim-centred approach and includes cost effective processes for evidence collection and evaluation. The IRCT will continue its close collaboration with the CPTA and civil society organisations across Africa to make sure it provides effective protection against torture.
What is torture?
“For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”
Article 1, Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment