On Human Rights Day, UN official calls for Member States to ‘stamp out torture’

High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

10 December 2014 – Governments must ramp up their efforts in eradicating the practice of torture and compensate the victims of this “most vicious of crimes,” the top United Nations human rights official has urged, as he marked the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention against Torture.

In a press statement issued today following the release of two “ground-breaking” reports – one from the United States and another from Brazil – on the use of torture by both Governments, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, called on all Member States “to act unequivocally” in stamping out the practice.

“Today is not only Human Rights Day,” Mr. Zeid said, as he recalled the UN-backed observance commemorating the date on which the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “it is also the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention against Torture on 10 December 1984.”

“Yet, as yesterday’s US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report shows, torture is still taking place in quite a few of the 156 countries that have ratified the Convention against Torture and have domestic legislation making it illegal.”

The UN rights chief welcomed publication of both the US Senate Select Committee’s summary report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Detention and Interrogation Program, as well as the report of Brazil’s National Truth Commission, which documents extensive use of torture among other gross and systematic human rights violations committed over a 42-year period, including the 1964-85 military dictatorship.

He noted, however, that the release of both reports, and the US one in particular, provided “a very stark reminder” that not only was the practice of torture still current, much more needed to be done to abolish it completely.

“Few countries will admit that their state apparatus has been practising torture, and many continue shamelessly to deny it – even when it is well documented by international human rights Treaty Bodies, and the scars are all too visible on the victims who manage to escape,” stated Mr. Zeid, who commended the Governments of Brazil and the United States for enabling the reports’ release.

He admitted that while it would take time to fully analyse the contents of the “landmark” reports, the human rights community could “still draw some stark conclusions about the failures to eradicate this serious international crime, for which there should be no statute of limitations and no impunity.”

In light of the report’s revelations, Mr. Zeid also wondered how both States would fulfil their obligation to ensure accountability for the crimes that have been committed, adding that those who ordered, enabled or committed torture “cannot simply be granted impunity because of political expediency.”

International law prohibits the granting of immunities to public officials who have engaged in acts of torture. This applies not only to the actual perpetrators but also to those senior officials within the US Government who devised, planned and authorised these crimes.

The US is legally obliged, by international law, to bring those responsible to justice. The UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances require States to prosecute acts of torture and enforced disappearance where there is sufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction.

“We have time to consider this aspect as we fully digest the implications of these two ground-breaking reports,” he continued.

“At the same time we must recognize the need for immediate bold action to eradicate this most vicious of crimes. And victims of torture, disappearance, extrajudicial executions, or arbitrary or unlawful detention must be speedily and adequately compensated for the terrible experiences they have suffered at the hands of employees of the State.”

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