10 Sep 2002
Freedom from Torture: Prevention, impunity, rehabi

Statement presented at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, Warsaw, Poland: 'The role of civil society in preventing and monitoring of torture in the OSCE', by Jens Modvig, MD PhD, IRCT Secretary General

Ambassador, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Sir Nigel Rodley, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, identified an end to impunity, as the single most important step to combat torture. Today I would like to discuss one way in which this step can be taken – through strengthening the role of civil society in monitoring and reporting, and thereby preventing, torture.

We have seen, in recent decades, international efforts which have indeed strengthened the work against torture. Among these, the UN Convention against Torture stands out as the most important, providing a clear and universal framework for the standards necessary to eradicate torture.

Within the OSCE specifically, efforts in the work against torture have resulted in the:

  • increased awareness of both the practice of torture and of the prohibition of torture
  • ratification of the UN Convention by all OSCE member States, excluding Andorra and San Marino, and
  • incorporation by many OSCE member States of the Convention into their domestic law.

Yet still, the problem of torture – the prevalence of torture, the lack of resources to rehabilitate victims, and the lack of accountability by many States - remains a prominent issue within the OSCE region. The question is, where do we go from here?

Ratification of the UN Convention by itself is an important step, but only the first step towards the prevention of torture. States must then take the necessary steps to comply with the standards and obligations as contained in the UN Convention by:

  • enacting domestic legislation to prohibit torture
  • prosecuting those who continue to practice torture,
  • providing training and education to those at risk of committing torture, and
  • ensuring available reparation, including compensation and rehabilitation.

And, States must establish effective independent mechanisms to monitor, document and investigate settings in which torture takes place. In this respect, there is a clear role for NGOs in the prevention and monitoring of torture.

Ukraine provides an example in this regard, where representatives from the Ministry of Justice, the Ombudsman's Office, representatives of local civil society, embassies and professional organisations, as well as the IRCT and the Danish Centre for Human Rights, are partners in an innovative prevention project. This project demonstrates the potential of governments and civil society to work together in preventing torture through documentation, monitoring, training, and education.

There are a number of spearheading States that have opened up at the societal and political level, working in partnership with civil society to combat torture. It is not easy, and it requires considerable mutual goodwill and trust.

In this respect, the OSCE has the potential to promote a shift in thinking of the governments of those Member States yet to initiate such dialogue with civil society. Through its project activities and its network of regional offices, the OSCE can facilitate the opening up of channels for dialogue and partnership between governments and civil society in the prevention of torture.

We encourage the OSCE and its member States to recognise the contribution of NGOs in promoting national accountability as a means of preventing torture. Such initiatives may include:

  • strengthening the capacity of local NGOs, including human rights organisations and rehabilitation centres, to systematically document human rights violations,
  • promoting access to detention centres, prisons, and police stations by expert local NGOs,
  • training local NGOs in how to produce shadow reports to international reporting mechanisms on member States' compliance with relevant human rights instruments, and
  • facilitating dialogue between government and non-government actors to identify areas of collaboration in working together to prevent torture.

The ability of governments to effectively address past mistakes cannot take place without the input of civil society. And, it cannot take place without the necessary tools and expertise. In this regard, the Istanbul Protocol and Principles for the investigation and documentation of torture provide a strong starting point for prevention activities for all actors engaged in the fight against torture. The IRCT, in partnership with the World Medical Association and the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, is implementing at the global level the Istanbul Protocol as part of its work towards the prevention of torture.

One of the greatest challenges facing the human rights movement today is to convince national authorities that it is in their best interests to make use of the expertise existing within the NGO community.

The end to torture depends upon the governments of the world not only ratifying but fully implementing the UN Convention against Torture, and other relevant human rights instruments. This requires governments establishing independent national accountability mechanisms. A crucial part of such mechanisms are NGOs – including human rights organisations and rehabilitation centres systematically monitoring, documenting and reporting on the prevalence of torture in order to bring those offending states to account. 

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