25 June 1998


25 June 1998

Press Briefing



United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture is to be commemorated for the first time tomorrow, Friday 26 June, Bacre Waly Ndiaye, the new Director of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, announced at a Headquarters press briefing this morning. An exhibition on torture would be opened at Headquarters.

The day was proclaimed by the General Assembly on 12 December 1997 to be observed on 26 June every year. It coincides with the entry into force on 26 June 1987 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

At the press briefing was Dr. Allen S. Keller, an Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine and Director of the Bellevue/NYU Programme for Survivors of Torture.

Mr. Ndiaye, who is a lawyer, said torture was one of the worst human rights violations and that its use was spreading all over the world. In more than 40 countries it was being applied by governments. Torture had become an instrument of power used to break, terrify and devastate people. It did not spare women or children, he said.

The United Nations has played a leading role in the fight against torture, starting, first, with the adoption 50 years ago of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration described torture as one of the leading violations of human rights which should be prohibited. Another instrument which dealt with the issue was the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which prohibited torture. Finally in 1984, the General Assembly had adopted the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. (The Convention obliges States to make torture a crime and to prosecute and punish those guilty of it. It notes explicitly that neither higher orders nor exceptional circumstances can justify it.)

Mr. Ndiaye said the Convention had been ratified by 105 Member States. That was not enough, he said, compared with the 191 ratifications achieved for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Describing additional actions taken by the United Nations, he said there was a Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nigel Rodley of the United Kingdom, and a Committee against Torture, established by the General Assembly to monitor implementation of the Convention. Member States had been reporting to the Committee on efforts they were making to fight, outlaw and prevent torture. A United Nations Voluntary Fund for the Victims of Torture had also been established, Mr. Ndiaye said, and he announced that for 1998, a total of $4.2 million would be distributed for 112 projects in 50 countries to help more than 59,000 victims of torture. It was a significant achievement compared to five years

ago when the Fund had only half that amount of money for 57 projects and about half of the victims. The amount represented about two thirds of the Fund's requirement, and efforts had to be made to raise more funds for victims of torture.

Currently under discussion was an Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture which would allow unannounced visits to State parties to the Protocol to help prevent torture from occurring. The Special Rapporteur on Torture was also working to ensure that the impunity of torture was placed high on the matters under the jurisdiction of the proposed international criminal court, whose establishment is currently being discussed at a diplomatic conference in Rome.

Mr. Ndiaye said the United Nations was also providing education and training in human rights issues to police forces and prison guards to ensure that they avoid using torture in their work. He urged the press to help in raising awareness about the persistence of torture around the world, the need to combat it and assistance for the rehabilitation of victims.

In his introductory remarks, Dr. Keller said the Bellevue/NYU Programme was the first comprehensive treatment programme for survivors of torture and other human rights abuses in the New York City area. That the programme existed today was in large part due to the critical support it received from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, he said. Since the programme began in 1995, more than 250 individuals from over 40 different countries had been cared for. Those individuals had been persecuted for daring to question ruling powers, for expressing religious beliefs or simply because of their race or ethnicity. Among them were monks and nuns from Tibet, student leaders from African countries and ordinary citizens from Bosnia.

Dr. Keller said that torture was a sobering reminder of the interrelationship between health and human rights. When human rights were violated, there were devasting health consequences for both the individual and the community. The youngest patient in the Bellevue/NYU programme was a 6 year-old girl from an Eastern European country who suffered severe burns on her arm because her parents refused to provide information about an opposition party. One of the older patients was a man in his sixties whose torture, more than 20 years ago in a South American country, included repeated beatings on his knees. As his arthritis had worsened now, so too had his recurrent nightmares, Dr. Keller said.

The Bellevue/NYU programme tried to restore to torture survivors their dignity and their sense of trust and to help them get on with their lives. The programme was staffed by a group of professionals, including psychologists, psychiatrists, primary care physicians, social workers, rehabilitation doctors and nurses. Dr. Keller said that in their work, he and

Briefing on Torture - 3 - 25 June 1998

his colleagues were reminded of the darker side of humanity and the potential for cruelty in the world. "But we are also reminded by the patients of the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit. It is in their honour and for the sake of all those who have suffered from torture or continue to face risk of being tortured, that we must commit ourselves to speaking out against torture and to ending this assault on human dignity", he added.

Responding to questions, Dr. Keller said the oldest centre for victims of torture in the United States was in Minneapolis. Its programme provided critical expert services. There might be between 10 and 15 such centres in the country, he said, and added, "Tragically, it is a growth field". He estimated that there might be as many as 400,000 torture victims in the United States. New York City, with many immigrants, might have the largest number. In their programme, Dr. Keller said that one of the things carried out was research, not only into effective treatments but also into the epidemiology of abuse. The results of an epidemiological survey to find out what the incidence of torture and human rights abuses were among refugees, had shown a significant number. In a sample of about 200 immigrants it was found that about 10 per cent had been victims of torture. He told a questioner that there had been a high success rate among the patients who had applied for political asylum. Part of the Bellevue/NYU programme included examining individuals, often writing affidavits on their behalf and testifying in hearings. It was becoming more difficult to achieve political asylum, Dr. Keller observed. "Some of the new measures under the new immigration law raise tremendous concerns for our programme and many others advocating on behalf of survivors of torture."

Asked whether there were no torture victims in the United States, Dr. Keller said the focus of the Bellevue/NYU programme was to provide care to immigrants and refugees who were victims of political violence abroad. "This is not to say that there aren't human rights concerns and torture even here. There's no shortage of human rights concerns right here in our own backyard."

Mr. Ndiaye told a correspondent that awareness of torture was on the rise. It was not enough for States to ratify the Convention against Torture, but action should be taken to incorporate its provisions into domestic laws and criminalize it. He noted that a growing number was doing so.

Dr. Keller said torturers were becoming more sophisticated in their methods, and that many forms of torture left no physical marks.

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For information media. Not an official record.