Leaps forward: a wrap up of the UN Human Rights Council’s annual session

For four weeks every March, Geneva turns into a buzzing hub of global human rights dialogue and deliberations. Human rights defenders, national human rights institutions, diplomats and other stakeholders descend on the city for the main annual session of the UN Human Right Council. This is where international human rights standards are negotiated, States monitor and discuss thematic and country specific human rights situations and human rights defenders go to bring attention to the most recent developments on enjoyment of human rights across the globe.

With such a stage it is naturally difficult to single out specific events to highlight, so this snapshot is deliberately viewed from the perspective of the IRCT and our main priority areas around torture rehabilitation and prevention. From this perspective, four very different events stood out at the recent session that may have a great positive impact on the global anti-torture work:

The Council addressed the issue of redress and rehabilitation for torture victims in a consensus resolution, negotiated by the Danish government. The resolution stands out with its very strong language on access to rehabilitation services, and, among other things, encourages States to make appropriate rehabilitation services promptly available without discrimination, to support rehabilitation centres and to do this through a victims-oriented approach, thus putting victims’ needs at the centre of the process.

This should be seen in the context of the more detailed and comprehensive General Comment 3, adopted by the UN Committee against Torture in November 2012, which address the broader issue of redress. Taken together, these two documents provide advocates of rehabilitation for torture victims with the political support by the global State community (the resolution) and the technical elaboration of the obligation (the General Comment) to demand the realization of the right to rehabilitation from their respective governments.

In another important consensus resolution, the Council addressed the issue of protection of human rights defenders. This resolution featured significant improvements from previous resolutions. For torture rehabilitation organisations operating in difficult environments, where they fear  for their safety as human rights defenders, this resolution may provide some additional arguments in their daily advocacy on this issue.

The March session is also the time where the Special Rapporteur on Torture presents his annual thematic report to the Human Rights Council. This year’s report focused on torture in the health care setting and exposed practices of torture and ill-treatment in various contexts, such as against LGBTI persons, in drug rehabilitation centres, in mental health facilities, in access to reproductive rights and general provision of pain relief treatment.

Like many other sub-themes of torture and ill-treatment, this one also proved to be highly controversial, especially with many States that tend to take a very restrictive view of the torture definition. Furthermore, there seemed to be some confusion about the specific meaning of some sections of the report, which suffered from the restriction of addressing a problem of such magnitude within 20 pages.  Hopefully, the Special Rapporteur’s report will manage to open the world’s eyes to the torture and ill-treatment inflicted on these vulnerable groups and kick start a debate on how best to prevent and respond to such violations in a fashion where health professionals are made part of the solution instead of viewed as the problem.

Last but not least, the March session was the venue of the second act of an initiative started by UK-based IRCT member Freedom From Torture (FFT) with the support of the IRCT. Here, FFT produced analytical reports on the torture situation in countries of origin of their main client groups at their UK centres. These reports, which are based on forensic documentation of the clients in accordance with the Istanbul Protocol, are used for the dual purpose of building background information for asylum cases and promoting changes on the ground in the country of origin to the benefit of future generations and as an important element of reparations (guarantee of non-repetition) for their clients.

In the first act was a very well received report on Sri Lanka to the UN Committee Against Torture in 2011, which greatly contributed to a very strong examination of the Sri Lankan government. The second act was a report on the situation in Iran, which made a significant contribution to the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran and which was officially launched during an event at the Human Rights Council in March. It is truly remarkable to see the impact that these reports, based on medical evidence, have in a context at the UN where most reports and assertions are, at best, based on interviews and anecdotal information. It is very easy for States to claim that victims of torture and ill-treatment are lying to an interviewer because they want to hurt the government, but when faced with overwhelming forensic medical evidence produced by independent health professionals in a third country they tend to get more quiet and shy away. I, for one, can’t wait for FFT to launch their third act — a feeling perhaps not shared by governments that torture.

I can safely say that this is the most exciting and promising Council session that I have experienced since the very first session in 2006. And I am looking very much forward to the next Council session in June where the IRCT in collaboration with Penal Reform International will host an event where torture rehabilitation specialists will evaluate and discuss how to best implement the right to rehabilitation and what role UN human rights mechanisms can play to support these efforts.

Asger By Asger, Head of IRCT’s Geneva Liaison Office

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