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Committee Against Torture holds brief sixty-ninth session online

ROUNDUP

13 July 2020

The Committee against Torture this afternoon held its brief sixty-ninth session, its first-ever remote and unusual session.

Antti Korkeakivi, Chief of the Anti-Torture, Coordination and Funds Section, Human Rights Treaties Branch, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Representative of the Secretary-General, said that the COVID-19 pandemic had had an impact on the work of all 10 human rights treaty bodies. More importantly, it had had an impact on human rights and, in particular, on persons deprived of their liberty. The pandemic was exacerbating the risk of ill-treatment and torture worldwide and people deprived of liberty were now facing a new threat. As of mid-June 2020, more than 78,000 prisoners had contracted COVID-19 in 79 countries, and at least 1,100 had died of this new virus in prisons in 35 countries. Unfortunately, these numbers continued to grow. The pandemic and the current lack of resources represented a major challenge for the treaty body system when it was needed most.

Jens Modvig, Chairperson of the Committee against Torture, said the Committee was meeting today under exceptional circumstances due to COVID-19 and its consequences. He recalled that the Committee against Torture had to cancel its April-May 2020 session and was having today its sixty-ninth online session which was the first-ever remote and unusual session of the Committee against Torture. He welcomed the newly elected colleagues - Huawen Liu (China), Erdogan Iscan (Turkey) and Ilvija Puce (Latvia) - and said the Committee had decided that the election of officers was postponed until the next in-situ session. The current officers of the Committee would continue to perform their functions until that time.

Mr. Modvig said there were a number of serious obstacles to conducting an online session, and it was owing to these obstacles that the Committee had not been in a position to carry out its main activities, namely the consideration of country dialogues, and the discussion and adoption of decisions on individual complaints and inquiries under article 20. While the Committee had not stopped all its activities, this was not enough and the Committee’s mandated activities could not be carried out with online sessions under the present conditions.

Committee Members said that this two-hour meeting could not replace the Committee’s session. The treaty body system was paralysed, while some wanted to pretend that everything was working as normal. One Committee Member said that the Committee had been able to carry out some of its tasks. For example, they continued to receive communications from individuals claiming that their rights had been violated. However, they were seriously limited in their ability to act when it came to monitoring cases. Concern was expressed that budgetary constraints were being used as a reason for delays and postponement of treaty body activities.

Also speaking during the meeting were Frank Tressler, Permanent Representative of Chile to the United Nations Office at Geneva, and Hassan Kleib, Permanent Representative of Indonesia to the United Nations Office at Geneva, on behalf of the Convention against Torture Initiative.

The World Organization against Torture and the Kenya Section of the International Commission of Jurists also took the floor.

The next session of the Committee is scheduled to be held from 9 November to 4 December (to be confirmed).

Opening Statements

ANTTI KORKEAKIVI, Chief of the Anti-Torture, Coordination and Funds Section, Human Rights Treaties Branch, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Representative of the Secretary-General, said that the COVID-19 pandemic had had an impact on the work of all 10 human rights treaty bodies. More importantly, it had had an impact on human rights and, in particular, on persons deprived of their liberty. As the Committee and other United Nations anti-torture mechanisms pointed out in their joint statement on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on 26 June, the COVID-19 pandemic was exacerbating the risk of ill-treatment and torture worldwide and people deprived of liberty were now facing a new threat. As of mid-June 2020, more than 78,000 prisoners had contracted COVID-19 in 79 countries, and at least 1,100 had died of this new virus in prisons in 35 countries. Unfortunately, these numbers continued to grow.

The COVID-19 crisis had not only brought about substantive human rights challenges. It had also hampered the Committee’s capacity to monitor developments. Due to the health risks and travel restrictions, all in-person meetings of treaty bodies had been suspended through August. The Committee needed to be prepared for all possible scenarios for treaty body work, including further postponements of in-person meetings. As this was a shared challenge for all treaty bodies, cooperation between treaty bodies was crucial to share experiences and approaches. It was therefore important that the Committee against Torture and other treaty bodies engaged with the informal Treaty Bodies Working Group on the COVID-19 pandemic, which held its first on-line meeting on 3 July 2020. In the absence of in-person meetings, other means must be found to ensure close contacts between treaty bodies and their partners. The current liquidity crisis facing the United Nations was likely to exacerbate this situation. The pandemic and the current lack of resources represented a major challenge for the treaty body system when it was needed most.

Mr. Korkeakivi said the current challenging period coincided with the 2020 review of the treaty body system, which was launched on 2 June. At the briefing, the Chairs and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had also highlighted resource and other challenges related to the implementation of resolution 68/268. The Chairs of treaty bodies would hold an on-line meeting later this month to finalize their input.

JENS MODVIG, Chairperson of the Committee against Torture, said the Committee was meeting today under exceptional circumstances due to COVID- 19 and its consequences. He recalled that the Committee against Torture had had to cancel its April-May 2020 session and was having today its sixty-ninth online session which was the first-ever remote and unusual session of the Committee against Torture.

Mr. Modvig welcomed the newly elected colleagues, Huawen Liu (China), Erdogan Iscan (Turkey) and Ilvija Puce (Latvia). Under these exceptional circumstances, the new members had deposited signed solemn declarations with the Secretariat who posted them on the Committee webpage. For the same reasons, the Committee had decided that the election of officers was postponed until the next in-situ session. The current officers of the Committee would continue to perform their functions until that time.

There were a number of serious obstacles to conducting an online session, such as the time difference between the locations of members of the Committee. It was also necessary to ensure a secure and well-functioning platform and connectivity for all Committee Members and other entities, regardless of their location, and to ensure interpretation in the working languages for the full time of the session, an issue not yet resolved. Owing to these obstacles, the Committee had not been in a position to carry out its main activities, namely the consideration of country dialogues, and the discussion and adoption of decisions on individual complaints and inquiries under article 20. The main objective of the Committee was to ensure the highest quality of its work to guarantee a proper implementation of the Convention against Torture.

The Committee against Torture had not stopped all its activities : the Committee’s Rapporteur on new complaints and interim measures had registered new cases and issued interim measures of protection, and the Committee’s Rapporteurs for follow-up under article 22, for follow-up under article 19, and on reprisals had continued their activities. The Committee had also discussed and adopted by email and through a meaningful voting procedure its lists of issues and lists of issues prior to reporting as well as its annual report. A joint statement had been issued on the consequences of COVID-19.

Mr. Modvig stressed that this was not enough and the Committee’s mandated activities could not be carried out with online sessions under the present conditions. The Office of the High Commissioner had informed all treaty bodies that due to COVID-19 and its consequences, such as travel restrictions in some parts of the world, as well as the liquidity crisis currently facing the United Nations, which was likely not to improve in the near future, they had to be prepared for all scenarios, including the worst-case scenario of the inability to convene in–person meetings in 2020. COVID-19 represented a major challenge not only to the Committee against Torture but to the whole treaty bodies system and the United Nations Organization at large at a time when human rights violations had been exacerbated under the pandemic.

Mr. Modvig said the Committee needed to discuss three issues : a decision to postpone the November-December 2020 session to next year if the Office of the High Commissioner could not provide the resources for an in-situ session as well as bearing in mind that COVID-19 was still present in some parts of the world ; the related issue of extending the mandate for 1 year proposed to States and to be decided by States ; and the need for States to ensure proper allocation of financial and human resources to treaty bodies.

Discussion

One Committee Member stressed that this two-hour meeting could not replace the Committee’s session. The treaty body system was paralysed, while some wanted to pretend that everything was working as normal. All reviews of State party reports had been postponed. The situation was alarming as the Committee did not know when it would be able to resume its work properly.

Money must be made available so that treaty body monitoring could resume, but it seemed like the treaty body system was not a priority. Another Committee Member said the Committee should put itself in the hands of the States parties who had the obligation to assume funds for the treaty bodies. One Committee Member said that the Committee had been able to carry out some of its tasks. For example, they continued to received communications from individuals claiming that their rights had been violated. However, they were seriously limited in their ability to act when it came to monitoring cases. The Committee’s work was essential to protect persons from torture and ill-treatment. One Committee Member agreed that the November-December session should be cancelled as what they were doing now was not done in the way things should be done. Concern was expressed that budgetary constraints were being used as a reason for delays and postponement for treaty body activities. A Committee Member noted that since one session had already been postponed, there should still be money in the pouch which had not been used.

A Committee Member said that Kyle Ward of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had underlined in another meeting that the budget allocated to the treaty bodies remained intact and could not be re-allocated to other activities. However, the question was the availability of resources due to late or incomplete payment by Member States. There was a serious cash flow and liquidity situation. It was not possible to make long-term plans, but only month-by-month plans.

Other Statements

FRANK TRESSLER, Permanent Representative of Chile to the United Nations Office at Geneva, speaking on behalf of the Convention against Torture Initiative, said the Initiative was an inter-governmental initiative of the Governments of Denmark, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia, Morocco and Chile, aspiring to ignite a new push to reduce the risks of torture and ill-treatment worldwide, and to see how they could – as governments – share their experiences in a constructive way. With the COVID-19 pandemic, these were without doubt challenging times on a number of fronts - for governments, for organizations and for people throughout the world. They were witnessing a growing chorus of protests against reports of violence and heavy-handedness in national responses, not all of this related to COVID-19. Prisons had been sites of serious contagion and spread, while enforcement of quarantine and other restrictions had revealed shortcomings in policing practices, and at its most alarming, cases of assaults, torture and even death had been reported.

HASSAN KLEIB, Permanent Representative of Indonesia to the United Nations Office at Geneva, speaking also on behalf of the Convention against Torture Initiative, said that on 17 June, the United Nations Human Rights Council had held an urgent debate on the current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality and the violence against peaceful protest. The Initiative had made a joint statement in that debate, in which it called upon on all United Nations Member States and police chiefs worldwide to pledge zero tolerance of racism and discrimination, and to review and adjust, wherever needed, laws, policies, procedures and practices to be people-centred and prevention-oriented – “the CTI Police Pledge”.

World Organization against Torture said that over the past few months, all had witnessed how the COVID-19 pandemic had been exacerbating violations of the absolute prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment. All had seen the spreading of abusive policing when enforcing curfews and distancing rules, and, when faced with protests, the police had resorted to excessive use of force. Poor and underprivileged people were disproportionately affected. The COVID-19 pandemic had acted as a contrast fluid showing the protection gaps and the vulnerabilities of marginalized groups. Governments had stepped up harassment and arrest of human rights defenders, opposition activists and independent journalists. In the name of protection against COVID-19, civil society space was further closing. Concurrently, there was a collapse of the protection systems. This was creating a frightening accountability vacuum that States were using. They needed more than ever the Committee against Torture’s leadership as the prime global independent anti-torture body. It was crucial that the Committee addressed the failures of the policing and detention systems, to protect the vulnerable and marginalized, to respond to the people who sought their protection, and to hold States accountable.

Kenya Section of the International Commission of Jurists said that the number of the COVID-19 infections in the African continent was on the rise, and several African States continued to put in place measures to curb its spread. Regrettably, whereas the numbers of infections continued to be on the upward trend, the direct State responses had increased human rights violations in equal measure which amounted to torture, cruel and degrading treatment. Increased police brutality had led to loss of life, including children, despite public outcry. There had also been increased sexual and gender-based violations. There had also been forced expropriation, evictions and destruction of houses. And there had been a lack of prioritization of access to adequate health care and services. The Committee should keep States parties in check, particularly during this pandemic period, by periodically sending advisories or guidelines that addressed human rights violations that amounted to torture, cruel and degrading treatment. It should also remind States parties that the use of terms such as “necessity”, “national emergency” or “public order”, could not be invoked as a justification of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Closing Remarks

JENS MODVIG, Chairperson of the Committee against Torture, said that all agreed that the Committee had been unable to undertake the core part of its mandate : country reviews and communications. They also agreed that they would postpone their November-December session to next year unless it could be carried out in-situ. There remained in his opinion whether there were other activities that they could take care of. For example, the Human Rights Committee had been working in its online session on a draft general comment. The Committee against Torture could issue guidelines on how to protect from torture and ill-treatment in the context of COVID-19. They could also interact with other treaty bodies and consider other measures that could be taken.

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For use of the information media; not an official record