MORE RADICAL STEPS NEEDED TO ELIMINATE TORTURE, THIRD COMMITTEE TOLD, AS DEBATE BEGINS ON HUMAN RIGHTS QUESTIONS

30 October 2002
GA/SHC/3709

MORE RADICAL STEPS NEEDED TO ELIMINATE TORTURE, THIRD COMMITTEE TOLD, AS DEBATE BEGINS ON HUMAN RIGHTS QUESTIONS

30/10/2002
Press ReleaseGA/SHC/3709

Fifty-seventh General Assembly

Third Committee

30th Meeting (AM)

MORE RADICAL STEPS NEEDED TO ELIMINATE TORTURE, THIRD COMMITTEE

TOLD, AS DEBATE BEGINS ON HUMAN RIGHTS QUESTIONS

Opening discussions in the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) on the implementation of human rights instruments this morning, the representative of Denmark, speaking on behalf of the European Union, was joined by other delegations expressing their staunch belief that the time had come –- and indeed was perhaps long overdue -- to take more radical steps to eradicate torture.

While an impressive set of international legal instruments aimed at the protection and promotion of human rights had been actualized over the years, it was troubling that out of the six core treaties, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment had the fewest States parties, she said.  Moreover, even though torture had been universally condemned, it was still being practised.

Along with the representative of Switzerland and other speakers, she firmly believed that one step to ensure such treatment was finally eliminated would be through the adoption of the draft optional protocol to prevent torture.  That would provide for ex-officio visits to prisons and other places where cruel or degrading treatment or punishment might take place.

The representative of Switzerland added that while the draft optional protocol might not address all the concerns of States, it nevertheless represented the best possible compromise after nearly 10 years of negotiations by providing real added value at the universal level.  Further, it would promote combining national and international initiatives, while ensuring that both were mutually reinforced.

While supporting the notion that the optional protocol would contribute to the prevention of torture, the representative of Japan expressed serious concerns on the procedures, substance and budgetary issues surrounding the instrument’s negotiations.  She regretted that the Chair's draft had been pushed forward for adoption without due process of negotiations.

Concerning the budgetary aspects, she said it was not fair for non-State parties to be obliged to share the financial burden of the Convention.  Furthermore, States had not yet been given approximate estimates, even though a request had been made of the Secretariat.  She concluded by saying that to prevent torture, a truly effective tool was needed, as well as further discussion to create such a tool.

The representative of Costa Rica said the situation demanded renewed efforts to implement the norms contained in the Convention against Torture, particularly because most prisons -- even in developed countries -- suffered massive overpopulation and insufficient health and sanitation services.  Physical and psychological abuses by the security officials and even detainees themselves were chronic problems.  Beatings, electric charges, and sexual abuses were common practices.  It was indispensable that all States parties to the Convention adopted the necessary legislative, administrative and judicial measures to prevent torture within their territories.

Also speaking this morning were the representatives of China, Ukraine, Croatia and Saudi Arabia.

The Director of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights made an introductory statement.

The Committee will reconvene tomorrow at 3 p.m. to continue its consideration of human rights instruments and to take action on draft resolutions.

Background

The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) met this morning to begin its consideration of the implementation of human rights instruments, the first of a number of items on its agenda broadly related to human rights.  During the coming weeks, the Committee is expected to take up human rights questions, including alternative approaches for improving the effective enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The guiding document before the Committee is the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (document A/57/36) in which Mary Robinson, the outgoing High Commissioner, provides the context of the year’s challenges, including the impact of the horrifying 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States.  The High Commissioner stressed that the protection of civilians in times of war remains an important priority for her Office.  During the reporting period, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has continued to strengthen its relationship with other elements of the United Nations system in this regard, including the Security Council.

The report also addresses the importance of, and the Office’s involvement in, processes to ensure accountability in societies in transition.  An example of the approach taken by the OHCHR to assisting societies in conflict is the work undertaken in Afghanistan, where the Office participated in the design of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and is actively contributing to the implementation of the human rights provisions of the Bonn Agreement.

The High Commissioner states that it was a mixed year for the Commission on Human Rights.  Encouraging developments were the adoption of a draft optional protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the creation of a new mandate on the right to health, and the creation of two working groups to provide follow-up to the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

It is regrettable, however, that the Commission generally shied away from taking steps that would have strengthened protection of the rights of vulnerable individuals and groups.  The increase in block voting by groups and preference for an approach excluding action on country situations where consensus is not possible may indicate a possible trend towards weakening the traditional protection role that the Commission has exercised.  The High Commissioner’s report offers some ideas on how the Commission might strengthen its protection role.

Concerning human rights and development, the High Commissioner stresses that a human rights approach to development consists of two elements.  First, there is mainstreaminghuman rights, which captures the idea of institutional internalization of human rights from a peripheral concern to a shared corporate responsibility.  Second, there are rights-based approaches, which refer to the consequent operationalization of human rights into the policies andprogrammes of an organization.  In the recommendations, the High Commissioner states that the major focus over the coming years needs to be on developing and strengthening national protection systems, because it is at the national and local level that human rights are either protected or violated.

The annex to the report briefly describes the High Commissioner’s

13 official visits to Afghanistan, Bahrain, Brazil, Cambodia, China, East Timor, Egypt, India, Lebanon, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru and Switzerland.

There is a note by the Secretary-General on effective implementation of international instruments on human rights, including reporting obligations under international instruments on human rights (document A/57/56).  The note contains the report of the chairpersons of the human rights treaty bodies on their thirteenth meeting, held in Geneva from 18 to 22 June 2001.  Among the recommendations, the chairpersons adopted a unanimous decision that treaty body chairpersons, or their designated members, would attend meetings of the United Nations organs to which their reports were submitted at the time the reports were being considered.

Further to the note, the Office of the High Commissioner was also requested to provide funding to implement that decision, if necessary, through the plans of action.  The chairpersons also recommended that the treaty bodies should consider ways of strengthening collaboration with the Subcommission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.  The chairpersons also made recommendations concerning the joint meeting with the special procedures system; improving collaboration and the exchange of information between treaty bodies and the special procedures mandates; thematic discussions; and the fourth joint meeting.

There are also several other reports before the Committee today on the status of various international human rights instruments, funds and conventions.

The Committee has before it a report of the Secretary-General on the status of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (document A/57/291).  The report states that as of 20 June 2002, the Convention has been ratified or acceded to by 19 States.  In addition, 11 States have signed the Convention.  The Convention will enter into force when at least 20 States have ratified or acceded to it.

Before the Committee, there is a report of the Secretary-General on the status of the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery (document A/57/308) which contains the financial status and activities of the Fund and the recommendations adopted by its Board of Trustees at its seventh session, held at Geneva from 21 to 25 January 2002, and approved by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on behalf of the Secretary-General in February 2002.

There is a note by the Secretary-General on effective implementation of international instruments on human rights, including reporting obligations under international instruments on human rights (document A/57/399).  The note contains the report of the chairpersons of the human rights treaty bodies on their fourteenth meeting, convened from 24 to 26 June.  Among other things, the meeting considered the following substantive items:  follow-up to the recommendations of the thirteenth meeting; review of recent developments relating to the work of the treaty bodies, including the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, and the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education; and national-level implementation of treaty body recommendations.

Among the recommendations of the fourteenth meeting, the chairpersons suggested that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should continue the periodic distribution, through the "list server" to all members of treaty bodies and special procedures mandated-holders, of a list of planned country visits concerning reports of States parties to the major human rights treaties.  It is recommended that the "list server" could be used as a network enabling direct communication and exchange of information between special procedures and treaty body experts.

There is also a report of the Secretary-General on the status of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (document A/57/400).  The report states that as at 1 July 2002, the Convention had been ratified or acceded to by 129 States.  In addition, 10 States had signed the Convention.  The report includes an annex of all States that have signed, ratified or acceded to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as at July 2002.

The Committee is also set to take up several reports that have not been issued, including the report of the Human Rights Committee (document A/57/40), the report of the Committee on Torture (document A/57/44), and the Secretary-General's report on the operations of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for the Victims of Torture (A/57/268).

Introductory Statement

BACRE WALY NDIAYE, Director of the New York Office, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, introduced the reports before the Committee on human rights questions, including the implementation of human rights instruments.  Discussing the work of the United Nations in monitoring and implementing human rights instruments over the past year, he said one highlight, included in the report on the thirteenth and fourteenth meetings of the human rights treaty bodies, had been the first inter-committee meeting of the treaty bodies, held at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva from 26 to 28 June 2002.

He also gave the details of two reports that would be issued later in the session.  The annual report of the Committee against Torture (document A/57/44) included its report on that body’s twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth sessions, during which it considered the reports of 12 States parties and continued work relating to confidential inquiries under article 20 of the Convention against Torture, as well as the consideration of individual communications.  He said that during those sessions, the Committee had revised its rules of procedure to provide for a mechanism to deal with the non-reporting of States and States that had submitted reports but had failed to send representatives to present them.  The Committee had also created a procedure for follow-up to concluding observations and had introduced amendments to its rules of procedure concerning the examination of individual complaints.

Introducing the annual report of the Human Rights Committee, which described that body’s seventy-third, seventy-fourth and seventy-fifth sessions, he said the Committee had considered the reports of 11 States parties on compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  It had also continued its work regarding individual communications.  Notably, at its seventy-fourth session, the Committee had adopted a procedure for following up its concluding observations.

Statements

OLE E. MOESBY (Denmark), speaking on behalf of the European Union, said violations of human rights happened in every region of the world.  The events of 11 September last year in the United States, 12 October this year in Bali and last week in Moscow reminded everyone that security and democracy could never be taken for granted, but must be defended actively and ceaselessly.  The European Union believed that efforts to combat terrorist acts must respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and humanitarian law, and that the fight against terrorism must be carried out in accordance with international human rights law as defined in the relevant instruments.

The promotion and protection of human rights was the primary responsibility of every government.  But as members of the international community, States also had the responsibility to monitor the human rights situation of all people and to assist other States in ensuring respect for human rights.  International concern and protection were called for when there were substantial reasons to believe that human rights were not being addressed.  Such international reactions were intended, and must always be seen, as a means to assist the victims and the State involved in reconciling situations where human rights were at stake.  They were neither hostile nor unfriendly acts, he said.

The international community had adopted an impressive set of international legal instruments for the protection of human rights.  Regrettably, they had not yet achieved universal adherence.  It was perhaps particularly regrettable that, while torture was universally condemned, the Convention against Torture was nevertheless the one of the six major human rights conventions with the fewest States parties.  The European Union urged all States, which had not done so, to give very positive consideration to ratifying or adhering to all the six conventions and their optional protocols.  The time had come -- indeed it was long overdue -- to take more radical steps to eradicate torture.  One such step would be the adoption of the draft optional protocol to prevent torture by providing for ex-officio visits to places of detention and other places where torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment might take place.

BRUNO STAGNO (Costa Rica) said on 26 June the international community had celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of the entry into force of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.  It had been a propitious occasion to remember that instrument’s capital importance for the safeguard of human rights.  The Convention not only contained a total and absolute prohibition of torture, but also a series of safeguards to ensure that any detention, arrest or imprisonment respected the dignity of any detained person arrested or imprisoned.  Nevertheless, torture had not been eliminated.  Regrettably, even today, degrading penalties were applied, and innumerable detained persons suffered cruel and inhuman treatment.  Most prisons, even in developed countries, suffered from massive overpopulation, inadequate infrastructure and insufficient health and sanitation services.

Physical and psychological abuse by the security officials and violence among prisoners themselves were chronic phenomena, he said.  Besides, beating, electric charges, sexual abuse and the permanent use of chains and iron bars were common practices.  The situation demanded renewed efforts to implement the norms contained in the Convention against Torture.  It was indispensable that all States parties to the Convention adopted the necessary legislative, administrative and judicial measures to prevent torture within their territories.  Costa Rica was presenting to the Committee a resolution that contained a practical mechanism that would enable States to fulfil effectively their obligations, in conformity with the Convention, allowing the eradication of torture.

JENO C.A. STAEHELIN (Switzerland) said the Convention against Torture, while quite comprehensive in its scope, had nevertheless proved inadequate to address all the complexities of that scourge.  Torture was still practised, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment could still be found in many societies.  Moreover, the bulk of relevant national legislation was also lacking. In light of all that, it was more urgent than ever to complete negotiations on the draft optional protocol to the Convention, which aimed at establishing a system or regular visits to places of detention to examine allegations of cruel and inhuman treatment.

That draft represented the best possible compromise after nearly 10 years of negotiations, she said.  Although the draft did not answer all the concerns of many countries, it did provide real added value at the universal level.  It would promote combining national and international initiatives, while ensuring that both reinforced each other.  Switzerland was aware that some were reluctant to approve the draft for financial reasons.  However, when considering approval might lead to the eradication of those affronts to human dignity and grave violations of human rights, it must be viewed as a well-made investment.  She added that resources required by the subcommittee on the protocol should be charged to the regular budget of the United Nations.  Every effort must be made so that even the poorest States were allowed to participate in meetings and negotiations surrounding that and other important human rights instruments.

LA YIFAN (China) said he believed that the mechanism of submitting and reviewing State party reports, as provided for in various international human rights instruments, had contributed to the effective implementation of those instruments.  However, there were inadequacies in the existing reporting and reviewing mechanisms, and many countries had raised that point on various occasions.  The issues in that regard included better coordination among different treaty bodies; combining reports and extending reporting periods; reducing the burden of the States parties, especially the developing countries, in preparing implementation reports; and increasing the cooperation between treaty bodies and States parties with a view to promoting mutual exchanges and understanding for the benefit of the implementation of the human rights instruments in various States parties.

Each and every State was ultimately responsible for implementing international human rights instruments, he said.  Thus, applying the principle of consensus to the elaboration of international human rights instruments was an effective way to ensure the widest possible acceptance of the instruments.  China believed that that method of negotiations must be applied earnestly to the drafting process of relevant international human rights instruments.

FUMIKO SAIGA (Japan) said the international community must act in a consolidated manner to bring the practice of torture to an end.  Japan, as a State party to the Convention against Torture, had joined the international community in its efforts to tackle torture effectively.  For example, it had contributed positively to the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture to support the reintegration into society of torture victims around the world by providing them with treatment and rehabilitation.  Japan intended to continue to fully cooperate with the international community in its efforts to address the issue of torture.  Her country believed that the draft optional protocol, aiming at establishing a system of regular visits to places of detention of State parties, would contribute to the prevention of the practice of torture.

However, Japan continued to have serious concerns on the current draft optional protocol regarding procedure, substance and budgetary issues.  She regretted that the Chair's draft had been pushed forward for adoption without   due process of negotiations.  Dissatisfaction with the lack of due process of negotiation had been clearly manifested in the subsequent vote.  Concerning the budgetary aspects, she said it was not fair for non-State parties to be obliged to share the financial burden of the Convention.  Furthermore, States had not yet been given approximate estimates, even though that had been requested from the Secretariat.  To prevent torture, a truly effective tool was needed, as well as further discussion to create such a tool.

OKSANA BOIKO (Ukraine) said universal participation and full implementation of the legal instruments in the field of human rights remained the cornerstone for ensuring the effective protection and global promotion of human rights and freedoms.  The recent considerations of Ukraine’s periodic reports by the Human Rights Committee and other relevant human rights bodies had proven that Ukraine had made substantial progress in the field of human rights. As a party to Optional Protocol 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights, Ukraine had abolished the death penalty.  Her country was also a strong supporter of measures to prevent and prohibit torture.  The new Ukraine criminal code qualified torture as a specific crime and provided punishment, including imprisonment, for committing torture.

Concerning human rights instruments, she said that at this stage, each Member State was a party to one of more of the six core human rights treaties.  Unfortunately, the monitoring system in this field was far from satisfactory.  Reports to the committees were often years late and frequently narrowed to a summary of legislation.  Recent consideration of reports in different treaty bodies also showed that, due to a work overload, they often experienced difficulties in paying appropriate attention to the specific issues of the human rights policy of concerned countries.  She welcomed the continuing efforts by the treaty bodies aimed at rationalizing their work.  Coordination among the various human rights institutions of the United Nations system was also vital.

DUBRAVKA SIMONOVIC (Croatia) said, while the treaty body system clearly remained the cornerstone of the United Nations human rights mechanism, there was room for improvements.  Croatia supported more coordinated work of treaty bodies, particularly to make them more "user friendly" through streamlined reporting

procedures.  In that context, she welcomed the new measures introduced to enhance the efficiency of treaty bodies working methods.  Their better coordination had also been proven through the holding of the first inter-Committee meeting, and the efforts made for the better coordination of treaty bodies with other United Nations human rights mechanisms.

Concerning the Convention against Torture, she said that despite the existence of the strong and clear prohibition of torture under international standards, torture was still practised worldwide.  Therefore, new strength must be directed towards the implementation of the international prohibition provisions.  It was necessary to enable international action to prevent torture through the establishment of a credible international mechanism -- such an instrument was before the Committee.  It was based on prevention through the creation of international mechanisms carrying out visits to places of detention, as well as the national mechanisms to ensure the continuity of the monitoring system.  Croatia, therefore, appealed to all States to support the adoption of the draft optional protocol to the Convention against Torture.

FAWZI BEN ABDUL MAJEED SHOBOKSHI (Saudi Arabia) said human rights had become a part of the heritage of humankind, but distorted thinking, in contrast with holy texts, often led to abuses of those rights.  Such false concepts of human rights had created many international problems.  He regretted that human rights had not become ethical or religious obligations, promoting respect for the dignity of all people.  Rather, human rights were generally and regrettably considered from a political standpoint.  An example of such a skewed view of human rights protections and obligations under international human rights norms could be clearly seen in the cruel and inhuman treatment of the Palestinian people, who suffered daily violations of human rights at the hands of the Israeli occupying forces.  Israel seemed to believe it enjoyed immunity and impunity and could not be punished.  Israel’s violent activities perpetrated against the Palestinian people vitiated the noble words about human rights spoken around the world in intergovernmental forums.

He said that Islam promoted respect for the dignity of all, regardless of race, creed or colour.  Human rights in Saudi Arabia were subject to specific legislation, but they did not exceed those decreed by God.  The rights responded to the precepts of the Holy Koran, which transcended the whims of world governments.  He added that the human rights of immigrants were protected in his country.  Almighty God had set forth the very notion of human rights, and it was, therefore, absurd to assume that one set of such rights or one notion of human and social development could be applied to all religious and ethnic cultures.

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For information media. Not an official record.