Commissions of inquiry alone cannot fight impunity against torture – UN expert

Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

5 March 2012 – Commissions of inquiry into torture and other forms of ill-treatment are effective instruments to fight impunity, but do not replace a country’s legal obligations to prosecute human rights violations, a United Nations independent expert stressed today.

“A commission of inquiry by itself is never sufficient to fully satisfy a State’s obligations under international law,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez.

Unlike criminal investigations and prosecutions, commissions of inquiry provide an opportunity for a deeper understanding of the underlying context in which violations were committed and allow for the review of government policies, practices and institutional shortcomings, and contribute to the healing of victim communities, providing recommendations on reparation and guarantees of non-repetition.

“Commissions of inquiry are strong and flexible mechanisms that can yield ample benefits for governments, victim communities and the wider public, but they do not relieve States of their legal obligations to investigate and prosecute torture, and to provide effective remedies to victims of past violations, including reparation for the harm suffered and to prevent its reoccurrence,” Mr. Méndez said in a report to the UN Human Rights Council.

He underlined that commissions of inquiry can also facilitate the formal investigation of current systems or legacies of torture, and pave the way to effective and fair prosecutions. “Where possible, the possibility of national commissions of inquiry ought to be pursued before the establishment of an international commission.”

Mr. Méndez’s report aims to generate further discussion of the standards that apply to the establishment and conduct of commissions of inquiry, and the relationship between such commissions and the fulfilment by States of their international legal obligations with regard to torture and other forms of ill-treatment.

The report will be discussed in Geneva at a side event on “Accountability for human rights violations by States in the context of national security and countering terrorism,” and will also be highlighted at a side event on “Solitary confinement and its human rights implications.”

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