June 26 is the International Day in support of Torture Victims. Much remains to be done…
The international community has repeatedly condemned torture as one of the most serious crimes under international law, for which perpetrators must be held accountable. In particular, the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, ratified by 145 states, requires all state parties to ensure that torturers do not escape justice; the Convention obliges state parties to investigate allegations of torture with a view to prosecution, and to either prosecute or extradite torture suspects found on their territory, regardless of where the torture took place. The Convention also requires states parties to afford a remedy to survivors of torture, including an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation, and the means for the fullest rehabilitation as possible.
“The prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is absolute and is a peremptory norm under international law. No person or State is exempt from the ban. All are required to uphold it at all times, in all places and under all circumstances.” Marie-Jo Cocher, Secretary General, FIACAT
Despite this legal framework and the broad international consensus on its prohibition, torture continues to be practiced around the world as a regular part of policing, as punishment or intimidation and as a means of repression and societal control. In order for this heinous practice to be abolished once and for all, states and their citizens must stand firm in their opposition to torture, in all cases and under all circumstances.
“The UN Day in Support of Victims of Torture is an occasion for every EU citizen, to say enough is enough – torture is inhuman and we don’t subscribe to it.” Carla Ferstman, Director, REDRESS
What should be done to stop torture?
First of all it is important to note that torture most often occurs behind closed doors. When torturers believe that their actions will not be detected by outsiders, and feel secure in the knowledge that their superiors approve of - or will turn a blind eye to - abuses, they all too often act with impunity. One of the most effective methods of preventing torture is, therefore, to ensure that independent experts can open any door in any place of detention at any time.
But deterrence does not start at the moment when force or intimidation is likely to be applied; rather, regular visits allow experts to analyse root causes, and identify early signs of potential dysfunction before they lead to abuse. They can observe the situation first-hand and maintain an ongoing dialogue with authorities to help them establish effective safeguards against torture, and improve conditions of detention. For detainees, having direct, confidential contacts with independent experts constitutes a form of protection as well as of moral support.
The EU Guidelines on Torture  recognise the importance of independent monitoring, and call upon countries outside the EU to allow independent experts to access places of detention. However, only eight of the twenty-seven EU member states have ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture that would require them to set up systems of independent monitoring within their own borders. On the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, it is important to recall that the risk of torture exists in every country.
“The EU has a moral responsibility to lead the way in torture prevention, and open the closed doors of detention facilities within its borders to independent experts.” Mark Thomson, Secretary General, APT
Secondly, contrary to the common belief that torture is primarily used against intellectuals or political activists, experience increasingly shows that the majority of victims of torture and ill-treatments around the world come from the most disadvantaged social groups (the poorest, but also women, minorities, children, etc.). Members of marginalised communities are not only more vulnerable to such abuses, they are also least able to claim their rights and seek protection and redress. At the same time, these acts are increasingly being carried out by non-state actors including paramilitary and guerrilla groups, security companies protecting economic interests, organised criminal gangs and private individuals.
Accordingly, if torture and other forms of ill-treatments are to be effectively eliminated, their economic, social and cultural root causes must also be understood and effectively addressed by acting upon the phenomena that create a context for human rights violations: deterioration of social fabric, growing income gaps, weakening of the State’s regulatory capacity, repression of manifestations of linguistic, cultural or religious identity, etc.
The converse equally applies: acting to reduce levels of violence in a given society is a fundamental step towards ensuring the widespread enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. Around the world, conflict and lack of security expose citizens to situations that severely impede their possibility of escaping from poverty, of working in just and favourable conditions, of providing care and education to their children and of enjoying an adequate standard of living and the highest attainable standard of health.
“Torture is an offence and outrage against us all, but it is often the poorest and most marginalised populations who experience its most direct and brutal impact. For this reason, OMCT’s fight against torture is also a fight against economic and social injustice.” Eric Sottas, Secretary General, OMCT
But combating torture is not only about prevention. Much more needs to be done to ensure our solidarity with the many torture survivors in our midst, including in EU member states. Survivors include refugees fleeing torture, nationals tortured whilst travelling overseas, and also individuals tortured within the EU. They deserve compassion and respect for their dignity, as well as practical and legal support to exercise their rights to justice, each and every day.
With regard to supporting survivors it is vital to understand and acknowledge that torture almost always has long-term consequences for the individual victim, from physical disorders (such as chronic pain, impotence as well as impaired mobility, vision and/or hearing) to psychological problems (such as flashbacks, anxiety, insomnia, nightmares and depression). In addition to the suffering this causes for the immediate victim , severe social and trans-generational repercussions are common as family members are often deeply affected by the ordeal their parent, sibling or child has experienced and the consequent changes in his or her behaviour. Survivors and their dependents are therefore in need of – and indeed entitled to - reparation, including adequate medical and psychological treatment.
The EU Guidelines on Torture oblige member states to urge third countries to provide reparation for victims of torture and ill-treatment and their dependents, including adequate medical and psychological treatment as well as legal and social support. Moreover, article 20 of the so-called reception Directive (laying down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers, 2003) foresees the possibility of treatment for those who have been subjected to torture, rape or other serious acts of violence.
In this regard it is estimated that at least one in five of the many thousand refugees already residing in or arriving to seek refuge in Europe every year have been subjected to torture. In other words, the need for specialised treatment services for torture survivors in Europe is vast. EU member state should increase their financial support to torture treatment centres and programmes in their own countries. To do so is not only a legal obligation – it is also in the clear self-interest of each country to integrate those persons.
“Adequate treatment and support is an essential component in providing tortured asylum seekers and refugees with the best possible basis for successful integration into their host countries.” Brita Sydhoff, Secretary General, IRCT
Brussels, 26 of June 2008
APT, Association for the Prevention of Torture., www.apt.org
FIACAT, International Federation of Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture, www.fiacat.org
IRCT, International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, www.irct.org
REDRESS – Seeking Reparations for Torture Survivors, www.redress.org
OMCT, World Organisation against Torture, www.omct.org