Remarks by Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights
I would like to thank the Convention Against Torture Initiative (CTI), all participants and especially the Danes for their exemplary historic leadership on this issue.
As we all know, international law is unambiguous on the matter. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and so many subsequent iterations – both international and region – reflect the clear stigma that the international community has attached to torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment from which no derogation is permitted. Legally and morally, it is seen as an abomination. And indeed a source of shame for those who do it. Whereas countries that carry out the death penalty often justify their executions, countries that practice torture systematically deny it. And while some populist leaders may gloatingly say “I like torture – it works” – they are mercifully few in number.
Despite the international consensus, despite the fact that torture as a method of investigation has proved to be not only ineffective but counterproductive (by producing unreliable information) it remains widespread. The risk of torture is highest in the first hours and days after arrest, when detainees often have no access to legal assistance, independent medical examination or, more broadly, anyone from the “outside” who could ring the alarm bell. On a daily basis, we receive reports of cases of torture, including demonically imaginative new forms.
We know that torture strips away the essence of a human being’s humanity, dignity, and self-worth. And the fight against torture has always been at the forefront of the work of our Office. Last year, in an effort to prevent torture and ill-treatment, UN human rights officers around the world conducted over 2,000 visits to places of detention. And we support and work closely with the UN human rights mechanisms devoted to the fight against torture, which together form the global anti-torture architecture. Today, I wish to highlight the work of two of the lesser known of those mechanisms: The UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture and the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.
This year, the Torture Fund made 160 awards to assist victims of torture through medical, psychological, social and legal services which, last year, reached nearly 50,000 victims of torture in 80 countries. Its work is vital in restoring dignity and self-respect of victims and enabling them to rebuild their lives and sense of purpose. We warmly welcome the establishment, this March, of a Group of Friends of the Torture Fund, co-chaired by Denmark and Georgia, in order to raise the Fund’s visibility and to champion the importance of assistance for victims of torture.
The mandate of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture is a novelty for the UN. In an innovative approach, it carries out preventive visits based on principles of confidentiality and cooperation with the State Parties. Since its establishment in 2007, the Subcommittee has carried out more than 70 country visits and helped establish 68 National Preventive Mechanisms.
Today, however, these two UN mechanisms I’ve mentioned face a number of challenges. The organizations supported by the Voluntary Fund work in a worldwide context of shrinking civic space. And they are increasingly facing deliberate obstruction to their work of providing assistance to survivors of torture. Our data suggests that about 30% of grantees reported having been subjected to retaliation for doing their work, or for cooperating with the UN. Obstructions include measures to prevent organizations from registering as NGOs, prohibitions of “foreign funding”, and freezing of bank accounts. Those working in the grantee organizations have also been the target of acts of intimidation such as killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, death threats, surveillance, defamation and travel bans. I have been assigned a particular responsibility for reprisals and intimidation for cooperating with the UN, and regrettably this is an increasingly widespread phenomenon that goes way beyond torture mechanisms.
The Sub-committee also faces a number of challenges: several States parties to the Optional Protocol to Convention against Torture have tried to impede its access to places of detention, or undermined the independence of the National Preventive Mechanisms, or reduced their budget.
The adoption of the Convention against Torture came at a time, in the 1980s, when the international community was confronting torture primarily by military dictatorships. Since then, the Committee against Torture (CAT) as well as other components of the UN have strived in various ways to provide protection against more contemporary forms of torture and ill-treatment. These include torture by non-State actors, with the CAT clarifying that State parties are responsible for acts of torture and ill-treatment committed by non-State or private actors, and that States’ indifference to such acts provides a form of encouragement and/or de facto permission. The Committee has applied this principle to States parties’ failure to prevent and protect victims from gender-based violence and harmful traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation, child and forced marriage, lynching, ritual and honour killings.
Despite the absolute and universal prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, such abuse is still practiced in all regions of the world, even in countries that have formally criminalized the practice but not made real efforts to stamp it out.
Contemporary challenges such as terrorism, organized crime, and irregular migration have given rise to trends aiming to trivialize torture, or to even justify such abuse as a “necessary evil” in exceptional circumstances. In that context, the Committee against Torture has consistently rejected the justification of torture as a means to avert “terrorist threats”, reminding that the Convention prohibits confessions extorted by torture of any person, without discrimination. Also that the mere act of transferring persons under rendition and secret detention programmes is in itself a violation of the Convention. It is a matter of serious concern that influential States have declined to ensure judicial accountability for acts of torture and ill-treatment committed by their officials, as well as for the cooperation of their officials with States operating rendition and secret detention programmes. These decisions undermine decades of efforts to ban the practice.
As a result of the widespread criminalization and deterrence of irregular migration, migrants have increasingly become victims of widespread human rights violation by State officials and organized criminals, such as smugglers and traffickers. A recent study found that the prevalence of torture victims among irregular migrants averages 27% and in some contexts 76%. Earlier this year, I met several African migrants, survivors of Libyan detention centres, every one of whom – man, woman, boy, girl – had been tortured and raped. Tortured with mobile phones next to the victim, who was forced to call relatives (whether or not they had them) and beg them to transfer funds if they did not wish to hear the screams of their loved ones over the phone.
And among the most savage examples of industrialized torture in our lifetime has been the horrific acts committed inside Syrian detention centres, where the zest for dehumanizing perceived opponents has been taken to the extreme of systematically disfiguring faces almost beyond recognition before the moment of death. There are literally thousands of photographs testifying to this sickening practice.
To put an end to torture clearly requires us to work together towards new approaches and tools, which is why I so much welcome the agenda of this Seminar: To cooperate and innovate. The need for practical guidance to police officers and other officials on the implementation of safeguards has led us – the UN Human Rights Office – to support and work with an expert and practitioner-led initiative to elaborate a set of universal standards for non-coercive interviewing methods and procedural safeguards. Law enforcement officials, criminal investigators, psychologists and other professionals have worked together to develop such standards since 2016, when the then Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, introduced this idea. It is widely recognized that using torture to extract information is both immoral and illegal. Less understood – despite the mass of evidence – is that such methods are also deeply ineffective and indeed positively counter-productive for the simple reason that people undergoing torture are liable to say anything to stop the pain and humiliation, thereby frequently giving interrogators information that is wholly untrue and sending investigators up blind and irrelevant alleys, diverting their time from the real threats.
This not only leads to the wrong people being targeted or convicted but also discredits a country’s entire judicial, police and intelligence processes. We believe these universal standards will provide practical guidance to States on moving away from a confession-based criminal justice system, thereby reducing the risk of torture and ill-treatment. We are putting together an event in mid-November in New York to raise awareness of this initiative, and I hope to see many of you there.
When people are deprived of their liberty and cannot defend themselves, their treatment at the hands of public officials speaks volumes for the values of their government. Torture breaks down not only the will and dignity of the victim, but erodes the humanity of the torturer, and degrades society and its institutions. It destroys the public trust upon which the State’s legitimacy is founded.
I thank you all – representatives of Member States, NGOs, media and others – for doing so much through CTI to keep people’s attention on the need to end this scourge.
What makes this so important in my view is that, at a time of global backlash against progress achieved in many areas of human rights, the human rights movement needs to forge better alliances. The work done by CTI is an excellent example of how human rights is not an impediment but can positively contribute – as a vital tool – to law enforcement, stability and the rule of law. We should underline that message to as many people as possible.
Thank you very much.