States are still showing a “lack of awareness” over the seriousness of torture, despite the fact they are obligated to criminalize the practice, an independent United Nations expert said today, warning that few cases are ever brought to justice and where they are, the perpetrators generally get away with minor sentences.
“What is always strange to me if I go on a country mission and then speak to high Governmental officials, speak to the heads of prisons, of police stations etc, [is] a lack of awareness that torture is one of the most serious human rights violations,” the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Nowak, told reporters in New York.
“The Convention against torture [adopted more than 20 years ago] is very clear: it says States have an obligation to criminalize torture with adequate sanctions and if we look what the Committee against torture says is adequate, that is a prison sentence where the maximum penalty should be at least 10 years or more.”
“Torture is a very, very serious human rights violation and there is a wide practice of impunity; very, very few cases are actually brought to justice and then even when people are finally sentenced then they get these kind of disciplinary sanctions or it’s treated as a misdemeanour.”
Mr. Nowak spoke to reporters after briefing the General Assembly’s Third Committee earlier in the day, when he also spoke of his fact-finding visits over the past two years to Georgia, Mongolia, Nepal, the People’s Republic of China and Jordan. He also said that a large part of his work since his appointment in 2004 had been focused on the issue of torture and counter-terrorism.
“I spent much of my time in relation to the question of the relationship between torture and counter-terrorism strategies. In particular after 9/11 the absolute prohibition of torture has been put into question, not only by academics but also by Governments, in saying you have to balance the prohibition of torture with national security concerns.”
However, quoting from the UN Convention against torture, Mr. Nowak points out that it states that “no information, no confession that is established to have been extracted by torture shall be used as evidence in any proceedings.”