ASEAN neighbours discuss torture prevention

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Why ratify the OPCAT, particularly in South East Asia, where very few countries are state parties? This was a question posed by USec Severo Catura from the Government of the Philippines, at a seminar for Thai government officials on the OPCAT, jointly organised by the Thai Ministry of Justice and the APT on 19 February 2013 in Bangkok.

Philippino representatives were invited to share some insights with their Thai counterparts, about the Philippines road to OPCAT accession which took place in 2012. USec Catura responded to his own question with a number of justifications the Government had put forward, including ‘to fully rid our country of the vestiges of a past teeming violations of human rights, especially of torture’ as well as the desire ‘to be politically mature – measured in the humane manner the State and its authorities treat those who … are deprived of their liberties and freedoms’.

As USec Catura pointed out, Thailand occupies a unique position in South East Asia, as the only country never colonized. Thailand has also recently played a key role in improving conditions and treatment of women in detention, through the development and adoption of the Bangkok Rules, with leadership from Thai Princess Bajrakitiyabha.

Respecting sovereignty

The seminar opened with background of the OPCAT, and sharing experiences from the Philippines. In the afternoon discussions focused on the relevance of the OPCAT to Thailand. A panel of experts, including representatives from the Department of Rights and Liberties Protection, the Department of Corrections, the National Human Rights Commission and International law expert Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, faced questions from the moderator on the added value of OPCAT for Thailand. A key message from Professor Muntarbhorn was that the OPCAT is not about global scrutiny, but about establishing domestic oversight, that respected Thai sovereignty. Presenters also emphasized that Thailand’s ratification of the OPCAT would not involve signing up to new human rights obligations – instead, it provides a practical tool for implementing Thailand’s existing obligation to prevent torture under Article 2 of the UN Convention Against Torture.

This seminar was held in the context of the Thai government’s commitment at its Universal Periodic Review before the Human Rights Council in March 2012 to study the possibility of ratifying the OPCAT. The APT will continue to work with the government and other key actors in Thailand to promote independent oversight of detention, and other measures to prevent torture and ill-treatment.

“Few reforms absolutely essential”

What legislative measures need to be put in place by South East Asian nations considering OPCAT ratification?

The APT was invited by the OHCHR Regional Office Bangkok to respond to this question, at a sub-regional workshop on legislative reform and UPR follow up, organised on 21-22 February. The APT response, in short, was that few reforms are absolutely essential prior to ratification and it depends on country context. The OPCAT does not contain any new rights, but includes an obligation to establish or designate a body to monitor places of detention (known as a National Preventive Mechanism or NPM). In countries that designate existing institutions such as National Human Rights Institutions as NPMs, there may only be the need for minor amendment to the law. 

Undersecretary Catura from the Government of the Philippines and Mr Vong Ton of OHCHR’s Cambodia office shared the panel with the APT. This enabled some practical insights from within the region, as these countries are the two ASEAN state parties to the OPCAT.  Judging from the questions and discussion, the idea of ratifying the OPCAT could be of interest to other countries in the region.

Although this workshop was focused on legislative reforms, a key message that came through from discussions was that there are many non-legislative measures that can be put in place to prepare for OPCAT. It is vital to have detaining authorities aware of what OPCAT involves, and likewise to have civil society fully engaged.