Countries must urgently act on their commitments to eradicate torture – UN experts

Chairperson of the UN Committee against Torture Claudio Grossman. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

23 October 2012 – While an impressive international legal framework has been developed to prevent torture and other types of inhumane treatment or punishment, there are still too many States where this practice continues, a United Nations committee of experts said today, calling on countries to act on their commitments to eradicate it.

“We have not yet achieved a world free from torture, but we believe that this goal is achievable, that rights and duties need to be taken seriously, and that supervisory organs with independent experts are an essential component to achieving that goal,” the Chairperson of the UN Committee against Torture, Claudio Grossman, told the General Assembly during his presentation of the Committee’s annual report.

The Committee against Torture is a UN body composed of 10 independent experts tasked with preventing torture and monitoring the measures taken by States party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The Convention, which entered into force 25 years ago, provides that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

It also obliges States that have ratified the Convention to refrain from deporting or returning people to countries where they would face the risk of torture, and requires ratifying States to extradite or prosecute perpetrators of torture. Under the Convention, victims of the scourge have the right to redress, including compensation.

“The Convention has made a real difference in the lives of numerous individuals,” Mr. Grossman said. “However, there is a backlog of more than 115 cases pending before the Committee. This severely weakens the system as justice cannot be provided to States and individuals within a reasonable time.”

Mr. Grossman called on the General Assembly to increase financial support and resources so that the Committee can implement new procedures that would ease the process of States reporting to the Committee on the measure they have taken to prevent and address instances of torture.

“We sincerely hope that the General Assembly will soon bring additional resources to our under-funded system,” Mr. Grossman said.

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment entered into force 25 years ago. To date, 153 out of the 193 UN Member States have ratified or acceded to it. However, 29 of these have never submitted a report to the Committee as required.

The General Assembly also heard today from the Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, who presented a report which finds that the death penalty is increasingly being viewed by international bodies and several States as a form of torture due to the severe mental and physical pain and suffering it causes to people, in addition to failing to respect an individual’s inherent dignity as a person.

Mr. Méndez observed that the death penalty has so far been treated under the exception of the right to life provided by international law, but stressed that a new approach that puts the death penalty in the context of torture is emerging.

“My analysis of regional and national jurisprudence identifies a momentum towards redefining the legality of capital punishment,” said Mr. Méndez, adding that “States need to re-examine their procedures under international law because the ability of States to impose and carry out the death penalty is diminishing as these practices are increasingly viewed to constitute torture.”

In his report, Mr. Méndez analyzed the evolving standards within international bodies and State practices to frame the debate about the legality of the death penalty in the context of preserving human dignity and prohibiting cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.

He said that the “death row phenomenon” is a relatively new concept within the context of torture that refers to the pain caused by a combination of circumstances that produce severe mental trauma and physical suffering among prisoners serving death sentences.

These include uncertainty and anxiety created by the threat of death, as well as the effects of prolonged solitary confinement, poor prison conditions and lack of educational or recreational activities.

“So while it may still be theoretically possible to impose and execute the death penalty without running afoul of the absolute prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, the rigorous conditions that States must apply for that purpose make retention of capital punishment costly and impractical and not worth the effort,” Mr. Méndez said. “The prohibition of torture is absolute and non-derogable.”

Several methods of execution, including stoning and gas asphyxiation, have already been explicitly deemed to violate the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by international and domestic judicial bodies, and have been prohibited by a number of States that retain the death penalty.

“Further, while international law does not attribute different values to the right to life of different groups of persons such as juveniles, persons with mental disabilities, pregnant women, elderly persons or persons sentenced after an unfair trial, there is an established standard, supported by a vast majority of States, that executions in these cases are inherently cruel,” Mr. Méndez said.

Also today, the independent expert also joined his voice with that of two of his counterparts – the Special Rapporteurs on Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, and on extrajudicial execution, Christof Heyns – in expressing outrage over ten executions carried out by Iran, including that of Saeed Sedighi, over drug-related crimes.

“We deeply deplore the recent executions and the continuing reports of individuals detained who remain at risk of executions for charges that do not amount to the ‘most serious crimes,’ as defined by international human rights law,” the Special Rapporteurs said in a news release.

Mr. Sedighi was sentenced to death on 2 June for drug-related offences. He reportedly did not receive a fair trial and was also allegedly subjected to torture during his detention. On 12 October, the human rights experts called on the Government of Iran to halt the executions of Mr. Sedighi and other prisoners on death row, and to establish a moratorium on execution.

“It is disturbing enough that the Iranian authorities continue to execute individuals whose alleged crimes do not conform to ‘most serious’ standards under international law en masse,” the Special Rapporteurs said.

“It is all the more unacceptable that the Government proceeds with executions, without a reasoned response, when serious concerns related to due process are raised by multiple international actors,” they added.

Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back, in an unpaid capacity, on specific human rights themes.


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