An interview with Jens Modvig: Keeping the Committee Against Torture on its toes

Jens Modvig is the new chair of the United Nations Committee Against Torture. A medical doctor by training, he has long been committed to the eradication of torture. He is Director of the Health Department at DIGNITY, the Danish Institute Against Torture.

OMCT: You have just been nominated Chairperson of one of the international community’s foremost tools in protecting against torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment around the world.  What does your new role entail, and what does it mean to you?

Jens Modvig: Well, obviously, I’m both proud and humble because I agree with you: it is a very important role. And it might be even more important because as we have celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Convention Against Torture (CAT), I think the general impression is that we haven’t made as much progress as we would have liked. Torture is certainly still a prevalent problem and we need to reinforce the fight against it; and of course one of the platforms from where such a fight can be intensified is the UNCAT and this means that not only for me as Chair, but for the whole Committee (UNCAT), we face the challenge of increasing our impact.

If the great challenge now is to increase impact, how does the Committee go about doing this?

There are many aspects to gaining impact and one is to assist State Parties in being motivated to actually make those changes that we recommend. And this means that when a State Party delegation leaves the meeting room after having had the constructive dialogue with the UNCAT, I — and I think all the Committee — very much aim for them leaving on a high note, motivated, maybe enlightened, maybe also a little bit surprised sometimes that the problems were here and there, but basically acknowledging that they are going home with work to do and that they are motivated to do so. I think that’s what it’s about. And the Chairperson is somewhat responsible for the tone in which the dialogue takes place.

Another important step is to constantly revise our working methods to make them more effective. This is in order to keep us on our toes to do things in the best way. For instance, we have seen in this session that State Parties had difficulty in replying to all the questions we put to them, because of time constraints. It may be that we put so many questions to them and don’t allow them enough time to actually answer and this is in fact neither fair nor constructive. We will be reviewing both the time allocation and the dialogue no later than November, but we are already in the process of discussing how we might improve in order to get the most out of the dialogue and to get precise replies to precise questions.

How does the Committee benefit from NGOs, and how can the NGOs best serve the Committee?

I’ve said it many times: it’s paramount for our work that we have access to alternative information from civil society. We are really grateful, particularly to those NGOs that travel from very far away to brief the Committee, for one hour, on what they see as the most important issues. This is extremely helpful and a huge effort from the NGOs — some of them even risk sanctions or reprisals for speaking with us — and I would like them to know that we really appreciate it.

The Committee members agree that the most important information we get from NGOs are of two different natures and answer two questions. First, what do NGOs see as the most important issues on the ground? Second, where do they have a different perception on how things are? In other words, where can they provide parallel information to the one we receive from Governments? Reports that focus on these two areas are of direct value to the Committee.

Having served on the Committee for several years now, do you see any changes in the composition of the Committee over the years? What would you say are the strengths of this particular Committee?

I’d like to mention that the Committee benefits from four new very skilled members who come with new energy and enthusiasm, and that’s really great to experience. When I see how the Committee has been performing during this session I’m actually very impressed by what has been done. I think it’s a really excellent Committee comprising all sorts of different skills and backgrounds that are mutually supplementary.

Last week, 50 Tunisian NGOs launched a campaign with the slogan, « No to terrorism, yes to human rights. » Has the recent crackdown on terrorism around the globe created an additional challenge for the Committee? Do you see an increase in the use of torture in the past few years linked to the so-called fight against terrorism? What does this mean for the NGOs?

I think it is generally recognized that the fight against terrorism has made times difficult for upholding human rights. What we discuss quite often in the Committee is that the basic legal safeguards on deprivation of liberty — the right to a lawyer, the right to judicial review, the right to a medical examination, etc. — are suspended or postponed when the suspect is accused of a terrorist act. And the Committee holds the position that these fundamental safeguards are non-derogable: they apply in any situation.

As for what this means for NGOs: we do see a more hostile environment for NGOs in many countries. To which degree this is linked to the fight against terrorism can be debated but in any case, for me, it becomes even more important to be aware of the work NGOs do and to protect the rights of NGOs to fulfill their role in democracy, which is to represent the population and hold the State accountable to national and international norms.

What would you say to a skeptic who argues that sovereign States will not change their policies based on the UNCAT’s recommendations?

Well, sometimes I have the negative thought, what’s it worth? Is the Committee a paper tiger? But on several occasions recently I’ve been convinced that, actually, the work of this Committee is very helpful in triggering and pushing changes on the ground. I recently participated in a Convention Against Torture Initiative (CTI) meeting in Ghana where it was clear that at least three of the participating States could inform us that the recommendations from the Committee on initiating an anti-torture legal framework triggered a very large and comprehensive legislative process that, once it was completed and the law adopted, was actually reflected in a decrease in the occurrence of torture. That was maybe the most encouraging example I’ve seen or heard about recently and it of course made me very happy and a little bit proud that the Committee’s recommendations in fact do push for implementation and do make a big difference.

This session I’ll be presenting the results of the last two years of follow up and it’s clear that while maybe the typical result is not that recommendations were fully implemented within a year, the overall result is that either substantially or initially, the most urgent recommendations were implemented. That means that from an overall point of view we can demonstrate that State Parties, to a considerable degree, start implementing our recommendations. And that, I think, is quite an encouraging result.

I keep thinking that, on the one hand, after 30 years, how is it we haven’t seen more results? But then again, thinking about a phenomenon that has been so widely used or practiced, 30 years is in fact not that much. Maybe we should simply say, we are getting there, and sometimes we do see a step back as with the fight against terrorism, but by and large we are making progress: the machinery is running, slowly but safely.

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