Like other international bodies, the UN Committee Against Torture takes good time to develop its work. Thus, it requires a lot of patience and a strong focus on long-term objectives to work with the Committee.
But sometimes developments happen all at once and with such speed that it is hard to keep up. This November session of the Committee was one of those moments, which saw a wealth of significant developments especially in relation to the areas of redress, documentation of torture and protection against reprisals. These are all issues of key concern to the IRCT and something that we have been working on with the Committee for years. It is therefore with great pleasure I will outline the most significant developments and speculate as to how the rehabilitation movement can best utilise them in its daily work – while still promoting further improvements.
Victims’ needs for redress and rehabilitation
This subtitle is significant because it illustrates the spirit of the Committee’s new approach to redress and rehabilitation outlined in its new General Comment on Article 14 of the Convention Against Torture. The Committee embraced a victims-centred approach, advanced by the Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez, and integrated this thinking into its General Comment.
This is very noticeable in the section focusing on rehabilitation which in several places has a strong focus on the needs of victims. This can be seen in provisions on early access to rehabilitation services based on a medical rather than judicial assessment of the victim’s claim, consideration of the risk of re-traumatisation of the victim in rehab and judicial processes, and the clear statement that achieving full rehabilitation can only depend on the victim rehabilitation potential and not the resources of the State .
The General Comment also makes a significant contribution to the Committee’s future monitoring of States fulfillment of the right to rehabilitation by establishing that specialised services must be available, appropriate and promptly accessible and that such services can either be provided directly by the State or through the funding of non-State facilities, including NGOs, but always with the victim’s participation in the selection of service provider.
This provides a framework for rehabilitation advocates, victims and their representatives to directly engage with government authorities to further define how rehabilitation should be provided in the specific national context. Where this dialogue needs a bit of international “facilitation”, the text also provides criteria against which international monitoring mechanisms can assess States’ implementation of their Convention obligations to provide rehabilitation. Lastly, it can hopefully initiate a global dialogue on how to best ensure that torture victims receive the rehabilitation that they need.
During the session, the Committee had the chance to review how the government of Peru has set up its redress programme. This resulted in a fruitful dialogue and some novel recommendations from the Committee especially in relation to rehabilitation services. The recommendations can be found in paragraph 18 of the Concluding Observations on Peru. [Download document]
Documentation of torture is an integral element in investigations
The Committee has long had a strong focus on implementation of the Istanbul Protocol as a torture documentation tool. However, this has mainly been recommended to States as a training tool. The IRCT has long been arguing that while the Istanbul Protocol is a useful training tool, it should also be actively used as a mandatory and integral part of any investigation of torture and ill-treatment since it is only through its mandatory, appropriate and independent use in investigations that it will make a real contribution to ending impunity. One noticeable example of this is the situation in Mexico, where the Government has made a less-than-genuine implementation of the Protocol. During this session’s review of Mexico, the Committee extensively questioned the government on this issue and ended up issuing recommendations that clearly recognise the Istanbul Protocol’s role as an important part of torture and ill-treatment investigations. The specific recommendations can be found in paragraph 17 of the Concluding Observations [Download document].
This is an important step in the global promotion of torture documentation. It provides a context in the Committee Against Torture to question States on their active use of the Istanbul Protocol rather than how many trainings they have done. Further, it is very well aligned with current IRCT priorities of developing a global action plan for national implementation of the Istanbul Protocol.
Reprisals – focal point
In recent years, the Committee Against Torture and other related bodies such as the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture have become increasingly concerned with the occurrence of acts of reprisals against persons or organisations that interact with these mechanisms. While the Committee has previously addressed these acts on an ad-hoc basis, it has now made the decision to designate one of the Committee members as rapporteur on reprisals.
In parallel, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture has established a working group to look into the issue. While this is a welcome development, there is still a lot of work to be done on designing specific measures that these mechanisms can take to prevent and otherwise address acts of reprisals. In this context it will be particularly important to involve national organisations to ensure that their voices are heard. The IRCT will be happy to support our members with bringing their positions to the attention of the Committee.
Time for national implementation
While all of these developments are welcome, the real test of their relevance will be whether they are in fact implemented on the ground. Here it is the role of organisations like the IRCT to bridge the gap between the international and national level by providing the support that our members identify as needed to promote national implementation. This could be in the form of political pressure, capacity building, technical assistance or something entirely different. We will only know when we hear from you.
Asger is Head of the Geneva Liaison Office