About time! Reasons to ratify the Convention against Torture

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A few days ago, on 7 May 2013, the Committee against Torture marked its 25th anniversary as the guardian of one of the most widely accepted international human rights conventions.

The adoption of the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) in 1984 followed nine years after the universal pledge by all member states of the United Nations to end the evil of torture and ill-treatment, in the 1975 Declaration against Torture. These instruments recognise torture to be a crime so repugnant to all humanity that its prohibition should be a fundamental norm of international law binding all states. This is one of the few absolute and non-derogable obligations which the international community has accepted on behalf of all humanity as a condition of its shared membership.

After 25 years, 153 States have now pledged themselves to achieve the objectives of the Convention against Torture. It is now time for the remaining 42 countries to join the treaty at this significant anniversary and recognise the full competence of the Committee against Torture.


Benefits of ratification

With the act of ratification, a State is declaring unambiguously that it will no longer tolerate acts of torture or ill-treatment, and demonstrates its willingness to join the community of States that already stand together to promote fundamental freedoms and human dignity among its people.

Ratification is a clear message to the international community that builds confidence in the State, and which can promote cooperation and build esteem with partners. But the adoption of UNCAT delivers far reaching benefits beyond simply demonstrating a State’s readiness to end torture. The Convention describes a legal framework necessary for legal, policy, and institutional reform. Once a State ratifies the UNCAT, these tools become accessible to national actors to help prohibit, prevent, and punish acts of torture and ill-treatment, and provide a means of redress for victims. In short: the UNCAT promotes the development of good governance, the rule of law and security, through a system of accountability and international review.


Ensuring justice for victims

One of the primary obligations of the UNCAT is to ensure accountability for acts of torture. Specifically, the Convention provides the means to ensure that perpetrators are punished, that victims are offered rehabilitation and reparation, and that justice is achieved. As several States have struggled to establish the legal grounds to prosecute international crimes, particularly where they are committed overseas or by foreign perpetrators, the UNCAT provides the tools to overcome such challenges and enable effective prosecutions.

Ratification of the UNCAT also initiates a cooperative relationship between the State authority and the Committee against Torture. Access to this committee of international experts has significant advantages for States parties. The Committee provides tailored expert advice to help all States parties achieve implementation of the Convention and effectively prohibit torture. This is done in a collaborative dialogue, as part of the periodic review procedure.


A burden for small States?

Though the appeal of ratifying the UNCAT is easily understood, many States (particularly small or less developed States) fail to ratify due to perceived burdens and responsibilities which would be incurred through ratification.

The financial cost associated with ratification is the principle challenge for many small States. These States recognise that the costs associated with legal and policy reform, the introduction of safeguards against ill-treatment in detention, or the training of staff, are a commitment that simply cannot be met, at least at a time of such severe financial constraint.

However, other States have shown that these costs may be managed in a way which incorporates them into existing commitments or bears them gradually over time, making implementation of the Convention possible, even for small States. For instance, with the ratification of UNCAT in Vanuatu, the OHCHR demonstrated that the costs of treaty implementation could be built into existing commitments made on justice sector reform, hence dramatically reducing the anticipated costs associated with ratification.

Reluctant States also assert that reporting to multiple UN mechanisms, including the Committee against Torture, is burdensome for States with limited resources. However, States which have already overcome such challenges sought advice from partners, including other States, the OHCHR, and civil society, who provide technical assistance in order to facilitate the process of reporting to the Committee. In addition, as all States have already reported to the UN Human Rights Council during their universal periodic review, every State now has a system in place for the preparation and adoption of State reports, further reducing the challenges of preparing a report for the Committee against Torture.


Responding to the risk of torture

Some small States say that the UNCAT simply doesn’t address the real challenges they face. Either their prison population is so small, or the risks of natural disaster or to the environment are more urgent. For other States, the low priority afforded to the ratification of UNCAT is a result of the genuinely held belief that torture is not a problem domestically, but applies only to distant conflicts or under particularly repressive regimes.

Yet the evidence of our recent history illustrates that the risks of torture are not characteristic of only authoritarian regimes. Several developed democracies have also experienced the most horrific crimes. The risk of torture exists in every country, every political situation, during periods of conflict and at times of peace, and at every stage of a country’s development, unless effective preventive measures are taken in earnest. The UNCAT recognises the dignity owed to each person in the custody of the State. Ratifying the Convention is an effective way for States to respond to the risks of ill-treatment for persons in detention, and to help build trust in state authorities.

No one is suggesting that achieving the objectives of the Convention is easy. Indeed, the objectives of preventing torture are never truly fulfilled. Even in States with an excellent regard for the dignity of persons in detention, authorities must remain ever-vigilant to the risk of torture, and should take positive steps to ensure that it is never tolerated, nor remains unpunished.

Ratification of the UNCAT is therefore an important first step in the process to end practices that lead to ill-treatment and torture, and one which brings with it a number of key benefits. Challenges to ratification, as they are, may be overcome with the assistance and support of international and domestic partners.

Photo: Nauru was the last State to ratify the UNCAT in September 2012.