23 October 2012
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE BY panel of human rights experts on torture


With a growing number of countries abolishing or suspending the death penalty, mounting evidence was making it possible to envision a future where the practice would be eradicated, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment told reporters at Headquarters today.


“It’s very telling that the trend is there, and that many countries are abolishing the death penalty or suspending it,” said Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez.  “In almost every case of court decisions, the reason is that they cannot conceive of the death penalty without crossing the line into cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  There are serious doubts that the death penalty can be imposed with full respect of human rights.”


Mr. Mendez was part of a panel of experts announcing that they had just reported their findings to the General Assembly.  Also on the panel were Claudio Grossman, Chair of the United Nations Committee against Torture, and Malcolm Evans, Chair of the United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture.


The report presented to the Assembly, Mr. Mendez told reporters, largely emphasized that methods of execution, such as firing squad, hanging and lethal injections, could not be discounted as being completely painless.  The report also addressed the phenomenon of “death rows”, which tended to generate pain and suffering that rose to the level of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and, in some cases, torture.


Echoing a common concern among the panellists, Mr. Grossman pointed out that, despite some gains in achieving the goal of eliminating those practices, torture was still a common occurrence in too many States.


“It is a reality that we should not accept,” he said, noting that new mechanisms could provide a possibility to achieve that goal.  “We don’t have an option here.”


Even though 153 States had ratified the Convention against Torture, Mr. Grossman continued, universality was important and rights had to be taken seriously.  He lamented the fact that 29 of those States had never submitted reports, which were required to be presented every four years, and some had delayed submitting reports for more than a decade.  Further hampering efforts was the deterioration of funding, he said, noting that the Committee had neither the time nor resources to consider and translate reports if all countries decided simultaneously to comply with their obligations.


As for the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture, Mr. Evans highlighted its country visits to places of detention, as well as some of its innovative features, including a special fund that provides resources to implement its recommendations.


However, he stressed that, as he had underscored in his report to the Assembly, the mechanisms established by and within States were essential to monitoring places of detention on the national level.  While his Subcommittee could complete five or six country visits a year, some national mechanisms could conduct weekly visits.


“There are very brave people doing very powerful work,” he said, emphasizing the involvement of civil society.  “It’s becoming increasingly obvious to me that in the work that I do, visiting countries and trying to bring about change, that the place where human rights are really protected is not going to be in my committee room in Geneva.  It’s going to be in places of detention in countries.  They need support and encouragement from the outside, but the final way of improving condition and preventing torture lies in the States themselves.”


Mr. Mendez then answered a volley of reporters’ questions about reports of violations around the world.  On Cuba’s cooperation with human rights rapporteurs, he said he had not yet received a visit date following a request sent to that Government.  Concerning the hangings of convicted drug traffickers in Iran, he said that after sending urgent pleas last week to not carry out the executions, the executions had occurred last weekend, and he had since issued a press release condemning the action.


On the matter of a recent trip examining human rights conditions in Western Sahara and Morocco, Mr. Mendez responded that, while he was still in the process of compiling a final report, he had noted that the same evidence of alleged practices had been found in both areas.  Answering a question about the United States’ death penalty legislation, he said there were serious doubts about that country’s assertions it guaranteed that human rights were not being violated when imposing that punishment.


When asked if there was an awareness that violations occurred in both poor and “first world” countries, Mr. Mendez said reports of torture did not depend on the gross national product.  The degree of awareness depended on whether or not there was a free press.  The worst challenge, he pointed out, was that the contemporary culture was less condemnatory about torture.  “It is up to us to identify the practices of States that infringed on human rights, and to make societies less tolerant of the practices,” he stated.


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For information media • not an official record