Arab States and the Committee against Torture: Promises with a bag of tricks?
Norms shape behaviours by setting standards of conduct. A State that has ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) binds itself to the standards set by the Convention. It commits to: criminalize torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in domestic law, prosecute those who torture, and provide victims with appropriate redress. Yet, while most Arab States are a party to the UNCAT (with the exception of Oman and Sudan), Alkarama receives hundreds of torture cases from across the region each year. What good are norms unless they translate into concrete changes on the ground?
The reviews of Arab States before the Committee against Torture (CAT) have produced a strange ballet. Tactical games divert the Committee from its original purpose, which the Convention defines as empowering an independent third party to guarantee the implementation of a State’ obligations under the Convention.
For over a decade, Alkarama has been working closely with the UN and civil society to defend victims of grave human rights violations, including torture, in the Arab world. In the process, our NGO has acquired a deep understanding of the Arab States’ modes of interaction with the CAT.
Certain State tactics are glaring:
- lengthy delays in the submission of national reports (Mauritania submitted its national report in 2012 with a seven-year delay and Saudi Arabia in 2015, five years after the initial deadline);
- misrepresenting the situation on the ground by presenting a favourable picture of reality (Iraq affirmed during its review in July 2015 that torture was not practiced in the country at all);
- flooding submissions with irrelevant information, a bad habit shared by all Arab countries.
An additional challenge arises from the lack of avenues for bringing torture cases to the attention of the Committee. While Article 20 of the Convention gives competence to the Committee to undertake a confidential inquiry into allegations of torture where it is systematically practiced, to date, only Lebanon or Bahrain have accepted such inquiries. Other Arab States such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq or the United Arab Emirates – where torture is systematic – do not allow the CAT to undertake such missions.
Similarly, Article 22 gives the Committee the competence to directly receive complaints from individuals (or from organizations on their behalf) who claim to be victims of a violation by a State Party. Yet, so far, only Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria have accepted this competence.
What is more, even in spite of the existence of both these procedures to bring cases before the Committee, what continues to be a matter of grave concern is the implementation of its recommendations or decisions.
Giving victims a voice (and an ear) at the UN
It comes as no surprise that the reports provided by Alkarama to the Committee differ substantially from what States provide. The raison d’être of NGOs such as Alkarama in the CAT process is to break the States’ monopoly over the narrative presented to treaty bodies such as the Committee. Alkarama, together with other human rights NGOs, provides an alternative narrative, exposing the international community to the reality on the ground and serving as the voice of those who cannot reach out to the UN. This is all the more crucial when the most common victims of reprisals in the name of “national security” are the very human rights defenders who document cases of torture, the journalists who report those practices, the lawyers who make claims in front of local courts, or the judges who try to prosecute those responsible.
Alkarama also ensures, by filming Committee sessions for instance, that the proceedings are not limited to the corridors of the UN so that victims and local civil society learn how States behave at international fora.
Time and again, Alkarama has witnessed the strange play whereby delegation members come to Geneva with a bag of tricks and paint a rosy picture of the situation in their countries. They often leave having made bold promises that remain unfulfilled. The participation of independent NGOs such as Alkarama is vital to ascertain the realities on the ground, for galvanizing the political will to keep the UN mechanisms relevant and strong, and ultimately to ensure that promises are kept.