Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Challenges of Tackling Torture

By  Ayushman Jamwal

 Professor Malcolm Evans, Chairman, UN sub-committee on the Prevention of Torture, spoke at the Welsh Centre of International Affairs on the measures being taken by international governing bodies to address the practice of torture.

Organised in collaboration with UNA Wales and Cardiff University, Professor Evans’ lecture highlighted the conundrum in international human rights legislation where over the years, a growth in legal human rights mechanisms have been accompanied by a rise in the global practice of torture.
According to him, domestic and international watchdogs lack cohesive measures to address human rights abuse and enforce the 1984 UN Convention against torture. In many nations, he argued, domestic courts are powerless to enforce anti-torture laws due to widespread corruption and the state’s complicity in the practice. Moreover, he explained, as there is an obligation between states to be subject to international law, the enforcement of human rights law is highly relative. To a great extent, it is exercised in an advisory capacity through reports and recommendations, he said.

Concerned with the lack of power wielded by international and national watchdogs and courts, Prof Evans explained the UN’s recent innovation drive to hold states accountable to human rights breaches within their borders.

He first elaborated the UN’s call for “universal jurisdiction” for extraditive punishment. According to this plan, he said, individuals accused of human rights violations could be extradited within a network of domestic courts of member nations to jurisdictions where depending on the crime, human rights law is more powerfully enforced. He cited the interesting example of former US President, George W Bush, who after announcing his authorization for the water-boarding torture technique, cancelled a visit to Switzerland as the Swiss authorities sought to prosecute him under universal jurisdiction.

However, the legal tool has not become a popular exercise amongst member nations due to its potential in souring diplomatic relations, he said.

Prof Evans then described the UN’s Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, where signatory members are obliged to create a national torture watchdog to monitor human rights violations within state institutions from police stations, prisons, military institutions to childcare homes and psychiatric wards. 

He argued that national organisations know the best means of gathering information, conceptualising domestic mechanisms for the enforcement of anti-torture laws, and mobilising legal action. Moreover, he explained that these national organisations gain support from UN human rights institutions in an advisory capacity in tailoring operational guidelines and strategies. The UN operates a Special Fund, fed by donations from OPCAT nations to help domestic watchdogs and civil society groups in curtailing torture; holds a Universal Periodic review to mount criticism against non-compliant member states on a multinational platform; coordinates with domestic watchdogs to hold surprise visits to catalogue and create reports on human rights abuse through interviews, analysis of state procedures and the conditions of detention centres.
“A victory for the UN has been that 57 states have ratified OPCAT, making it the largest of all human rights treaty bodies”, said Prof Evans.

He concluded his lecture saying that torture cannot be prevented once and for all. The best international and domestic organisations can do is put in place collaborative mechanisms of support to aid in torture prevention, and use the power of the media to maintain the spotlight on breaches of human rights.
“Torture needs to be challenged in member nations, not in Geneva”, said Prof Evans. Measures need to be tailored according to different socio-economic contexts to overcome bureaucratic challenges and to achieve the best possible results, he argued. Overarching rules and stipulations cannot achieve an effective mitigation of torture.   

When asked how to tackle state sanctioned torture in the Middle East, especially in the context of state forces clashing with pro-democracy movements, Prof Evans said that the UN is powerless as Lebanon is the only OPCAT member in the region. However he added that, “It is my hope that the successful pro-democracy movements aim to put in place benchmarks to uphold human rights”. “If requested, the UN will support the emerging governments to set up guidelines and mechanisms for strong and robust national human rights legislation” he said.