Dr Alice Edwards: Collaboration is vital to drive change
On 1 August 2022, Dr Alice Edwards began her term as UN Special Rapporteur on torture, the first woman to hold the mandate. In this blog, she reflects on her priorities, what she aims to achieve through her tenure and the progress that has been made to prevent torture and provide redress to victims.
I have come to the position of UN Special Rapporteur on torture at a complex and difficult time in global affairs. However, I believe that, by working collaboratively and strategically with partners in the international community and civil society, we can address the root causes that lead to torture and ill-treatment.
I have three immediate priorities that will inform my work. The first is to promote the basic building blocks for a torture-free society: a strong legislative foundation. Many countries in all regions have adopted crimes of torture in their national legislation, oftentimes accompanied by appropriate safeguards, but key challenges remain, most notable among them is the absolute priority that such laws need to be activated and utilised to investigate and prosecute perpetrators. Next year, I will present a report to the UN Human Rights Council on good national practices in the criminalisation of torture, and related investigations and prosecutions.
A second challenge, which has been especially visible in recent years, is the issue of police overreach and excessive use of force. This is also linked to the troubling incidence of police violence and racism, which has generated national and international dialogue. Drawing on the insights and experiences of States and civil society, I will prepare a report for the UN General Assembly next year on building community-based, responsive, representative and accountable police forces and other law enforcement. After all, it is public confidence in national institutions which allow them to function effectively, whereas torture is the ultimate betrayal of the citizen-state relationship.
My third priority relates to military and security actors, who are unfortunately regular violators of the prohibition against torture, especially during war and occupation. I will be incorporating the regulation and functionality of these actors in relevant activities, including by way of examining applicable national and international legislative frameworks and the functioning of accountability structures, such as military courts, to hold such actors accountable should they be in violation of international law.
Throughout all my work, I will take a victim-centred approach. I will further adopt a whole-of-government approach, addressing officials in all positions, and identifying structural causes for state-sanctioned violence. Root causes, prevention and accountability goals will be foregrounded.
Despite the sizeable global as well as domestic challenges facing all of us who work to end torture and other ill-treatment, I believe it is vital to recognise and give credit when progress is made. Today, every country in the world is a party to one or more of the international treaties that prohibit torture. There are currently 173 States parties to the UN Convention against Torture. That in itself is a significant achievement.
Additionally, there are a wide range of soft law instruments and guidelines to support public authorities, such as the Mandela Rules on the treatment of prisoners. In addition, many robust studies show that safeguards in police custody, such as access to a lawyer, are effective in preventing torture and ill-treatment. In this context, the Méndez Principles is another very positive development. The Principles set out an effective alternative to old interrogation methods still practised in many countries worldwide, which push for a confession and in the process, raise the risk of unlawful practices such as intimidation, duplicity, or even abuse and torture. The Mendez Principles, by contrast, provide a methodology to assist investigators carry out truth-oriented and non-coercive interviews while upholding the rights of those being interviewed. If a State adopts the Méndez Principles in practice, they will reap two key benefits: first, they will have a much more secure criminal justice system, based on the collection of evidence in an appropriate manner and not at risk of being thrown out because of unlawful conduct; and second, the risk of torture or similar ill-treatment against suspects, witnesses or even victims during questioning will be reduced.
Another important development concerns those countries that are transitioning out of authoritarian control into democratic States governed by the rule of law and human rights. These States are considering questions of truth and reconciliation, as well as how they can rehabilitate victims, as well as entire communities. As Special Rapporteur, I will encourage these countries in their efforts to dismantle past structures and practices and build a torture-free society.
There has also been significant progress in improving access to remedies for victims of torture. Although we may sometimes feel the picture is bleak, there are more avenues for redress and reparations for victims than ever before, whether at the national level – for example, through the establishment of truth and reconciliation commissions and renewed criminal justice efforts – or at the international level, where a growing number of States readily exercise universal jurisdiction to hold perpetrators accountable, regardless of the connection of the victim or the crime to their own State.
Awareness and advice
During my tenure as Special Rapporteur, I will endeavour to raise awareness of the absolute prohibition against torture. It is concerning to me that studies indicate the public is more tolerant of torture now than they were, for example, at the end of the Second World War. We have become complacent about our human rights. It is vital that we stand up and fight for rights that are fundamental to human dignity.
I will provide technical advice to States in a constructive manner so they are able to take decisions for themselves and lead on necessary changes. This advice will not only be provided to executive authorities, but also to the judiciary, parliamentarians, national human rights institutions, national preventive bodies and others with a role to prevent and respond to torture. National authorities must take the lead in identifying the problem and being part of the solution. Leadership is key. When necessary, I will call for investigations and call out governments when they are in conflict with the absolute prohibition on torture.
I will work with and for victims, and those who support them, to make sure they have access to redress, remedies and rehabilitation they require to re-enter society.
An honour and privilege
This appointment is a great honour for me. I have been working for the rights of victims of human rights violations and torture for over 25 years, with a particular focus on women and girls, especially in the context of war and armed conflict. I hope my appointment can be a source of inspiration for other women considering a future in an area that – with its focus on the military, security and police – remains male-dominated.
Women's rights and the rights of other minority and disadvantaged groups will be a focus of my tenure. At every turn, I will bring a non-discrimination lens to my work and consider the implications of particular laws, policies or practices for these groups.
Torture is one of the most devastating human rights violations for victims, for families, and for communities. My driving goal will be to do everything I can, in collaboration with the international community and civil society, to stamp out this practice once and for all.
Dr Alice Edwards, UN Special Rapporteur on torture other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment