Can Switzerland put torture back on top of the OSCE agenda?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The OSCE region, comprising the organization’s 57 participating States, is one of great diversity, a characteristic reflected at many different levels, not least with regard to human rights protection. While certain OSCE States are regularly pilloried in the international news media for their treatment of persons in their custody, other countries rarely make headlines. However, this is not to say that no detention problems exist.  

Take Norway, for example: The country was examined by the UN Committee against Torture in Geneva less than a year ago and criticised for the prolonged use of solitary confinement. Iceland is another interesting case in point, which was reviewed by the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva in July 2012. The UN Committee expressed concerns with the fact that young detainees are not always separated from adults in detention facilities and that Iceland does not have an independent mechanism to monitor detention conditions. The Holy See, an OSCE participating State since 1973, will be examined for the very first time by the anti-torture committee next year. It would be truly unprecedented if no concerns arose out of this review process. 

The track-records of a good number of other OSCE participating States in preventing torture and ill-treatment are infinitely worse than these examples. The point is: no country in the OSCE region can claim to be problem free in respect to torture and other ill-treatment.

Sadly enough, while it is not so shocking that torture and other forms of ill-treatment crop up in all sorts of countries and contexts, what is very surprising is that the issue of prevention does not appear to have been especially high on the agendas of most OSCE States during their time in the Chairman’s Office. The last time a high level meeting was devoted to the prevention of torture was in November 2003 – ten years ago – under the Chairmanship of the Netherlands.

When Switzerland takes over the Chairmanship in 2014, there are encouraging signs that this might change. At the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna in July, the Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter outlined the priorities for the Swiss leadership:

“Switzerland would like to advance the implementation of all commitments in the Human Dimension. Over the past forty years, the OSCE has developed a solid body of commitments to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. (---) The implementation of commitments must be improved, whether they concern combating torture, respecting human rights in the fight against terrorism, protecting human rights defenders, or respecting the rights of persons belonging to minorities.”

It is definitively a welcome prospect that Switzerland will place an importance on combating torture during its Chairmanship. It is clear that any attempts to counter the practices of torture and other ill-treatment must take place in a climate of genuine political will both on the part of OSCE participating States and the political structures of the OSCE. Hopefully Switzerland will find the support it needs for this important task.

Note. The OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw concludes on Friday 4 October.