Novel effort to prevent torture reaches milestone

From Benin to Sweden, Mexico to Cambodia, the human rights and dignity of detainees are better protected thanks to a ground-breaking mechanism focused on proactive and sustained actions to prevent torture and ill treatment.

A look inside the bleak Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh © UN Photo/Mark GartenThe Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) is unique among international human rights agreements. Not only does it set up an international body of independent experts , the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, who can visit countries to ascertain conditions of detention unhindered, but it also requires countries that sign up to establish equivalent bodies at national level.

Free from government control, these bodies visit detention facilities to verify that the treatment of detainees conforms to international standards. In particular, detainees shall not be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. As OPCAT’s primary objective is to prevent these crimes in the first place, the monitoring bodies do not only examine conditions of detention in places like prisons, police stations and mental health institutions. They also consider the laws, judicial and administrative procedures – or the lack thereof – that apply when individuals are deprived of their liberty.

“Torture and ill treatment are not the preserve of dictatorships. They also threaten democratic countries,” said Gérard Araud, the Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations, at a recent event to mark the tenth anniversary of the adoption of OPCAT. “If we do not exercise constant vigilance, prison conditions can undermine human dignity.”

The role of independent and fully functioning national preventive mechanisms is crucial to tackling systemic problems that could lead to a risk or actual practice of torture and ill-treatment, said Jean-Marie Delarue who, as General Controller of Places of Deprivation of Liberty in France, heads one such body.

Since its adoption in 2002, OPCAT has been ratified by 63 countries. According to Barbara Bernath of the Association for the Prevention of Torture, a non-governmental organisation that has been involved for 35 years in efforts to prevent torture, there are often misconceptions about the role of the monitoring bodies as being to blame and shame.

“OPCAT is premised on the belief that preventing torture and ill-treatment can be facilitated by a collaborative process between national authorities and national and international mechanisms working together in a constructive and forward-looking fashion. The role of the subcommittee is to act as a catalyst for change,” explained Malcolm Evans, Chair of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.

The subcommittee has conducted visits to 15 countries since its establishment in 2007 - Argentina, Benin, Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, Honduras, Lebanon, Liberia, Mali, Maldives, Mauritius, Mexico, Paraguay, Sweden and Ukraine. It has developed guidelines on the establishment of national preventive mechanisms and given its interpretation of obligation to “prevent” torture and other prohibited treatment.

Ibrahim Salama of the UN Human Rights Office observed that in 2011, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture undertook only three country visits due to resource constraints.

Noting that the subcommittee’s lack of resources was emblematic of the challenges confronting all the other human rights treaty bodies, Ibrahim Salama called for support to ongoing efforts to strengthen the system.

30 May 2012

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