Health care can be form of torture in certain cases, says UN human rights expert

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

5 March 2013 – An independent United Nations human rights expert today unveiled a new report in which he calls for an international debate on abuses of patients under medical supervision ranging from compulsory detention of drug users in rehabilitation centres to refusal of treatment for HIV-positive patients.

“Medical care that causes severe suffering for no justifiable reason can be considered cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and if there is State involvement and specific intent, it is torture,” said Juan E. Méndez, the Special Rapporteur on torture.

Mr. Méndez made the comments while presenting his latest report to the UN Human Rights Council, which is currently meeting in Geneva.

The report analyses all forms of abuse labelled as ‘health-care treatment’ which try to be premised or justified by health-care policies, according to a news release.

“There are unique challenges to stopping ill-treatment in health-care settings due, among other things, to a perception that, while never justified, certain practices in health-care may be defended by the authorities on grounds of administrative efficiency, behaviour modification or medical necessity,” he noted.

In his report, Mr. Méndez notes that, under the premise of drug rehabilitation centres, street children, persons with psychosocial disabilities, sex workers, homeless individuals and tuberculosis patients are sometimes reportedly detained in so-called rehabilitation centres which are commonly run by military or paramilitary, police or security forces, or private companies.

He also identifies the scope of State’s obligations to regulate, control and supervise health-care practices.

Referring to instances where governments have denied pain treatment, Mr. Méndez urges authorities to “guarantee essential medicines – which include, among others, opioid analgesics” as part of their minimum core obligations under the right to health, and to protect people under their jurisdiction from inhuman and degrading treatment.

He notes that denying opiate substitute treatment, which is often used to help heroine addicts, is sometimes used by authorities to elicit criminal confessions.

The report also cites violations of reproductive rights, abuse of persons with psychosocial disabilities and marginalized groups, including women and gay and lesbian persons.

Independent experts are appointed by the Human Rights Council to examine and report back, in an unpaid capacity, on specific human rights themes.


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