6 things you may not know about the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. You have probably already stumbled across this mouthful of a title or the somewhat shorter version UN Special Rapporteur on Torture in articles about torture and other human rights issues. But what do you actually know about this person? As the next Special Rapporteur will be appointed later this month, we thought it was time to find out more about the role and what it means to be a torture investigator working on behalf of the United Nations.

1. The role of the Special Rapporteur on Torture

The Special Rapporteur on Torture is often referred to as the UN’s anti-torture watch dog and in this function, the Special Rapporteur is the person responsible for informing and instigating political debates and decision-making processes at the UN.

The Special Rapporteur can undertake country visits to expose abuses, help the state being scrutinised improve its performance and report back to the Human Rights Council on the situation of torture in individual countries. Similarly, the Special Rapporteur receives allegations from people who are at risk and those who claim to have been tortured. He or she then submits these allegations to the country in question and begins a dialogue to resolve the situation.

The Special Rapporteur produces two thematic reports every year covering new ground in the fight against torture. These could be about developing the legal and practical understanding of themes relevant to the fight against torture, like the situation of torture and ill-treatment in a healthcare setting or the question of when solitary confinement is deemed torture.

Instead of being bound by a specific treaty, the Special Rapporteur is free to cover any thematic and country specific issue relevant to the fight against torture. This means that the mandate can be useful for civil society organisations working against torture in many different ways. For example, organisations can encourage the Special Rapporteur to visit their country to bring global attention to their domestic situation; or in the absence of functional judicial remedies, they can forward concrete cases to the Special Rapporteur, hoping to raise the case. They can also encourage and inform the drafting of thematic reports or invite the Special Rapporteur to speak at events, issue statements and take part in other public events.

2. Who is the current Rapporteur?

Argentinian human rights lawyer, professor and torture victim, Juan Méndez is the current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture – a role he took on back in 2010.

Mr Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defense of human rights and before joining the UN, he worked with organisations such as the Human Rights Watch, the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights in Costa Rica and the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame in the US.

Mr Méndez has also taught International Human Rights Law at Georgetown Law School and at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and he teaches regularly at Oxford University and the American University Washington College of Law.

Current Special Rapporteur on Torture, Mr Juan Mendez. (Courtesy of UN Geneva used via Flickr creative commons license)

Current Special Rapporteur on Torture, Mr Juan Mendez. (Courtesy of UN Geneva used via Flickr creative commons license)

3. 30+ years of reporting

Last year the mandate of Special Rapporteur celebrated 30 years of reporting on torture. The role was created by the UN in 1985 after the UN Commission on Human Rights decided to appoint an independent human rights expert who could examine questions relevant to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment worldwide.

Today, the mandate of Special Rapporteur is part of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Special Procedures Mechanisms system.

4. How many Rapporteurs have we seen in 30 years?

If the mandate of Special Rapporteur on Torture was a club, it would be an extremely exclusive one. Juan Méndez is only the fifth person to be appointed Special Rapporteur.

Mr Mendéz took over from Austria’s Manfred Nowak who was the Special Rapporteur from 2004 to 2010 and like Mr Mendez himself, is a human rights lawyer.

Rewind to 1985. The first person to be appointed Special Rapporteur was the late Peter Kooijmans from the Netherlands who later became Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs and Judge on the International Court of Justice. In 1993, distinguished law professor Sir Nigel Rodley from the UK took over from Kooijmans before handing over the reins to Theo van Boven, a Dutch jurist and professor emeritus in international law, who was at the helm from 2001 to 2004.

Former Special Rapporteur on torture, Mr Manfred Nowak. (Courtesy of UN Geneva used via Flickr creative commons license)

Former Special Rapporteur on torture, Mr Manfred Nowak. (Courtesy of UN Geneva used via Flickr creative commons license)

5. Who appoints the Special Rapporteur and for how long?

The UN Human Rights Council is responsible for appointing the Special Rapporteur on Torture.

The Council has a list of criteria for the selection and appointment of the Special Rapporteur, which includes the nominee’s expertise, experience in the field of the mandate, independence, impartiality, personal integrity, and objectivity. The Council also considers gender balance, geographic representation, and representation of different legal systems when appointing a new Special Rapporteur.

Finally, conflicts of interest, such as holding a position in government, will disqualify an individual from consideration.

Anyone from governments, regional groups operating within the UN human rights system, international organisations, non-governmental organisations, other human rights bodies, and individuals can nominate a candidate.

For the actual selection process, a group of members of the Human Rights Council review all applications and propose a list of candidates to the President of the Council who then appoints the next Rapporteur.

When appointed, the Special Rapporteur usually serves at least one three-year term.

6. Does the Rapporteur make a difference?

While states as such are not obliged to follow the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations following a visit, these visits are an important part of the UN human rights fact-finding and investigatory mechanisms. The Special Rapporteur and his reports are instrumental in shedding light on serious and otherwise forgotten human rights violations.

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