How civil society can bring the Convention against Torture home

30 years ago the international community, amidst the height of the cold war and threats of a nuclear war, was able to come together on one minimum baseline consensus despite all ideological divides.

‘Torture can never be justified! It is to be eradicated!’

This week, 30 years on, the United Nations are hosting a celebration for the anniversary of the UN Convention Against Torture.

Is there reason to celebrate?

On the face of it the answer must be no.

Torture remains practiced in most parts of the world. Few torturers today have to be afraid of facing responsibility. The heading of a report I recently read on Uzbekistan captures one of the core problems:

‘Our torturers know they won’t be punished’.

But there is also hope. We have seen changes in laws and institution building in many places. The first national preventive mechanism in North Africa that the OMCT office in Tunis worked on is but one example. Or as we speak the expected adoption this week of a tripartite mechanism, including civil society, to visit places of detention in the Philippines is another.

But the single most important factor for change is the development of a global civil society movement against torture itself! There is simply no change without actors for change!

Today in sharp contrast to the situation some thirty years ago civil society groups around the world are engaging their states on the eradication of torture and holding them to account. Many of these organizations are united in the global SOS-Torture Network of the OMCT.

True, it is states that carry the obligation to ensure the implementation of the UN Convention against Torture under international law. But stopping here would be short sided. History has proven that it is a vigilant and mobilized civil society that is at the heart of eradicating torture.

It is civil society that helps victims of torture, ensure their social, legal or medical rehabilitation, seek justice, document and report on torture in order to hold governments to account and that build an effective advocacy voice for necessary legal and institutional reforms that prevent torture. And it is our partners around the world who often have vital expertise and knowledge on how to move forward in the fight against torture. Without their expertise and ability to gather support many reforms against torture would be impossible.

A telling example is Kenya in which our partner organizations have been shaping the debate on human rights protection in the Constitution, new institutions on police oversight and complaints, and where the government has committed to adopt an anti-torture law initiated and co-drafted by local anti-torture organizations.

Another central point is this: we can help to bring the implementation mechanisms under the Convention home if we use it more strategically. I am speaking about the proceedings before the Committee Against Torture, a UN body of independent experts that reviews states compliance with the Convention (the ‘reporting process).

This month the United States, Ukraine, Venezuela or Kazakhstan – all countries with a major problem of torture and/or impunity – have to report to the Committee.

Let us not be naïve. Governments may have limited interest to reveal wrongdoing, or for the discussions to be reported domestically, or to engage in follow-up reforms. But I am convinced that we in civil society can make better use of this process.

For this we have to make the reporting process accessible, visible and to carry the debate home into our countries and societies.

A few points of learning:

First, NGOs can use the reporting process to provide vital information to the UN Committee Against Torture. Without this detailed and accurate accounts over the reality of torture there would be no proper basis for the UN experts to determine their findings.

These reports are called in jargon ‘alternative reports’. As the chair of our Israeli partner, the Public Committee Against Torture, tellingly noted ‘these reports are the real reports’. We should call the often sanitized realities presented by Governments the ‘real alternative reports’. With a well-targeted strategy we know to obtain authoritative recommendations on the need for new laws and policies. This gives vital munitions for campaigns for change.

Second, we have to move discussion beyond a few insiders. Many of our partners have combined the reporting with a much broader coalition or constituency building for reform, such as through broad anti-torture coalitions. It allows using the legitimacy of the reporting process provided by the Convention as a platform for reform.

And importantly: we can give publicity to what is happening in Geneva. With the revolution of social media, the webcasting of sessions, there is no reason why the discussions should escape domestic scrutiny. Kazakhstan and Venezuela will be two examples during this November in which we will hold with our partners’ local events transmitting the discussions here in Geneva. Journalists, too, can play a bigger role writing about the proceeding we encourage them to take in interest in what is happening here.

When going on a follow-up mission to Kenya six months ago I realized that due to a training of journalists and the work of our partners government officials, civil society activists and an interested public knew about the proceedings that had happened in Geneva. All this is important, as we have to lift the deliberations in Geneva from obscurity into the public domain. We need to ensure awareness not only by foreign ministries, but also by every prison or police director.

But of course the real litmus test is the follow-up. What happens after the Committee has issued its findings? What are states doing? It is here that we have to invest more by holding national consultations, campaigning for change, engaging government officials and proposing solutions.

In the coming weeks OMCT will work with our partners in Togo, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Pakistan and Bangladesh to mention only a few examples on the implementation of the Convention and the Committee’s recommendations convening national consultations, round-tables, legal studies, high-level follow-up visits to the countries concerned.

Over the years we have seen that civil society has been the driving agendas for change, making use of mechanisms such as the one under the Convention Against Torture.

Each of us has lessons to share about what worked and what failed. We have to listen to your voices, allow a sharing of experiences, in order to move forward more effectively.

I invite all the readers of this blog to provide feedback, to share experience, to allow us to embark in a process of learning from each other. What has worked in your case using the reporting to the Committee against Torture?

We hope that this blog can become a platform for civil society and other interested parties to reflect, engage and share.

It is our collective experience in the civil society movement that gives me hope to ‘cash in the check’ issued 30 years with the adoption of The UN Convention against Torture.

Gerald Staberock
OMCT Secretary General

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