23 years ago, on June 26, 1987, the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Punishment or Treatment came into force, and since its 11th anniversary, on June 26, 1998, it has been commemorated as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
A long-cherished dream of those who opposed the use of torture under any circumstances, the Convention followed up on the prohibition against the use of torture in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948, which declared, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” 23 years ago, Article 2.2 of the Convention Against Torture made clear that the torture prohibition is absolute, declaring, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
Torture, of course, has not been eradicated, despite the fact that 147 countries have ratified the Convention, and despite the absolute prohibition in Article 2.2, and some of its other provisions have proven particularly difficult for signatories to accept: for example, Article 3. 1, which states, “No State Party shall expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture,” and the articles designed to ensure that anyone practicing torture will be held to account.
Below are two statements to mark the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. The first is UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message:
Torture is a crime under international law. The prohibition of torture is absolute and unambiguous. Torture cannot be justified under any circumstances whatsoever, whether during a state of war or in response to terrorism, political instability or any other public emergency.
And yet, torture is still practised or tolerated by many States. Impunity persists for the perpetrators. The victims continue to suffer.
The International Day in Support of Victims of Torture is an occasion to underscore the internationally recognized right of all men and women to live free from torture. It is an opportunity to reaffirm our collective commitment to prohibit torture and all cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.
I urge all States that have not yet done so to ratify and honour their obligations under the Convention against Torture and the provisions of its Optional Protocol. I also appeal to all States to invite the Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit their prisons and detention facilities, and to allow full and unhindered access to those detained there.
In addition, only two additional ratifications are required for the entry into force of the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The Convention will reinforce the international legal framework to combat and prevent this heinous practice — which is clearly and historically linked with the practice of torture. I urge those States which have not ratified the Convention to do so as soon as possible.
On this Day we also express our solidarity with millions of victims of torture, and reiterate the need for all States to provide justice and rehabilitation for them. I thank donors to the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture and commend the persistent efforts by many non-governmental organizations and individuals to alleviate the suffering of these victims.
On this International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, I call on States and people to do their utmost to rid the world of this cruel, degrading and illegal practice.
The following Joint Statement was made by four United Nations mechanisms involved in preventing torture and helping its victims — the United Nations Committee against Torture; the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture; the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and the Board of Trustees of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture — who “have stated that despite a well-built international legal framework, torture prevails in many regions of the world and is often accompanied by an alarming degree of impunity”:
We are deeply concerned that torture continues to be widespread and that certain practices amounting to torture as well as to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment were reinvigorated, in particular in the context of the so-called global war on terror after 11 September 2001. The prohibition against torture and other forms of inhumane treatment is absolute and cannot be derogated even under emergency situations.
States must take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under their jurisdiction. In addition they should ensure that no reason based on discrimination of any kind be used as justification for torture or inhumane treatment. The lack of criminalization of torture and inadequate sanctions are main factors contributing to impunity. We often see that in the few instances where perpetrators are held accountable they often receive sentences far below what is required by international law. In order to live up to their obligation to protect everyone subject to their jurisdiction from torture, States must ensure that all acts of torture are criminalized as offences in their domestic penal law and punishable with appropriate penalties that take into account their gravity.
Recent studies have shown that some States, invoking different types of emergencies, have been directly or indirectly involved in practices such as secret detention, disappearances, expulsion or extradition of individuals to countries where they were in danger of torture, and other unlawful treatment or punishment in violation of the Convention against Torture and other international human rights instruments and humanitarian law [PDF]. We are dismayed to see that in almost no recent cases have there been judicial investigations into such allegations; almost no one has been brought to justice; and most victims have never received any form of reparation, including rehabilitation or compensation.
Torture leaves indelible traces on the body and minds of the victims and reparation can almost never be complete. Often, the right to a remedy and reparation for victims of torture is non-existent or severely limited. Adequate reparation, tailored to the needs of the victim including compensation and rehabilitation, is rarely provided or entirely dependent on the limited resources of private entities and civil society organizations. In light of these concerns, we call upon all States to ensure that victims of torture and other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment obtain full redress and urge them to adopt general guarantees of non-repetition including taking determined steps to fight impunity.
In this troublesome context, more than twenty years after its entry into force, the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is still far from universal ratification. As of today, it has 147 States parties, of which only 64 States have made the declaration under article 22 recognizing the competence of the Committee against Torture to receive individual communications. We urge all States to become party to the Convention against Torture and make the declarations provided under article 22 of the Convention, on individual complaints, in order to maximize transparency and accountability in their fight against torture and its related impunity.
Four years after its entry into force, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture has 51 State Parties. The Optional Protocol is a key instrument to prevent torture and ill-treatment by ensuring the establishment of independent and effective national preventive mechanisms empowered to visit places of detention. We therefore urge all States to ratify the Optional Protocol and thus to engage with the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. We further call upon those States Parties to the Optional Protocol that have not yet done so to establish the National Preventive Mechanisms to thus live up to their obligations related to the prevention of torture and ill-treatment.
On this International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, we pay tribute to the Governments, civil society organizations and individuals engaged in activities aimed at preventing torture, punishing it and ensuring that all victims obtain redress and adequate compensation, including the means for as full a rehabilitation as possible. We express our gratitude to all donors to the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, which currently supports the work of over 200 organizations in more than 60 countries, and hope that contributions to the Fund will continue to increase to make it possible for victims of torture and members of their families to receive the assistance they need. We call on all States, in particular those which have been found to be responsible for widespread or systematic practices of torture, to contribute to the Voluntary Fund as part of a universal commitment for the rehabilitation of torture victims and their families.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
Note: For further information about the UN’s most recent attempts to counter the practice of secret detention –- one of the elements of the derogation from the Convention Against Torture that became prominent “in the context of the so-called global war on terror after 11 September 2001” — see my articles about the secret detention report — UN Secret Detention Report Asks, “Where Are The CIA Ghost Prisoners?” and UN Human Rights Council Discusses Secret Detention Report — and my articles cross-posting the sections of the report dealing with US practices since September 11, 2001: UN Secret Detention Report (Part One): The CIA’s “High-Value Detainee” Program and Secret Prisons, UN Secret Detention Report (Part Two): CIA Prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq, and UN Secret Detention Report (Part Three): Proxy Detention, Other Countries’ Complicity, and Obama’s Record.
Torture is routine at St Mary’s Wharf, Derby, UK. What can the UN or Europe do about this?
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