Five stories to illustrate the first ten years of the OPCAT (speech)

Friday, November 18, 2016

Speech given by APT’s Chief of Operations Barbara Bernath on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the entry into force of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.

In the name of the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT), I would like to thank the OPCAT Committee for the invitation to this commemoration. It is a pleasure and an honour to sit on this panel today and take stock of the first 10 years of OPCAT implementation. I will do that through five “stories”, with some lessons learned for each.

Firstly, the OPCAT is the story of a man and of a vision. 40 years ago, in 1976, Jean-Jacques Gautier, the founder of APT, a Geneva banker and philanthropist, launched his idea for the first time, an idea that has been qualified by some as revolutionary:

Considering that the hours and days following the arrest are the most dangerous for the detainees, one can only wish (...) the creation of a system enabling an immediate and even a preventive action: the existence of permanent oversight by a commission entitled to visit places of detention, including police stations, at any time and without prior complaint”.

40 years later, this is not simply an idea anymore, as the Optional protocol exists, which creates such a system of visits. It is not revolutionary anymore either, when 83 States Parties have accepted to open the doors to their places of detention. As lessons learned, let’s emphasise the importance of having a vision and of perseverance; both should also guide the OPCAT bodies.

Secondly, the Protocol is the story of a paradigm shift: to replace the secrecy surrounding detention - which enables torture - with openness, transparency and unannounced access to places of detention. It is useful to underline how what now seems obvious, was not a few years ago and is still not everywhere. This access is not limited to prisons and police stations but also includes psychiatric institutions or centres for migrants. After 10 years, the lessons to learn is that access to places of detention is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for torture prevention; and that the criteria to define a place of deprivation of liberty should be the risk of torture or ill-treatment and thus the need for protection of the persons held there.

Thirdly, the OPCAT is a story of change. Beyond visits, NPMs, with their reports and recommendations, contribute to changes at different levels: material conditions, procedures, safeguards, legislations and policies; and, after 10 years, also emerging changes of practices and of institutional cultures. Throughout this year, the APT has collected stories from NPMs and other actors, stories of changes that have occurred thanks to the OPCAT, which we published today in this booklet. Patience is the lesson to learn here: by questioning practices NPMs contribute to changes, even if these become visible at mid or long term only.

Fourthly, the optional protocol is the story of a community. During regional NPM meetings this year, we could feel the strength created by a common mandate, anchored in an international treaty and supported by the SPT. Although there is still a lot to do for NPMs to effectively contribute to reducing the risk of torture, exchanges with peers help them to guarantee or even claim their independence, as well as to develop strategies for prevention. A lesson for the future: together, we can improve and focus on the quality of the work and follow up over time.

Fifthly, torture prevention is a story without an ending. Indeed, what Jean-Jacques Gautier called “the shame of our century”, speaking about the 20th century, persists or even worsens in the current 21st century. The dark and uncertain time that we are living and the security response show - now more than ever - that the risk of torture exists everywhere. Against this risk, vigilance by monitoring bodies is more necessary than ever. But we have also to regain the battle of public opinion and to reaffirm the absolute prohibition of torture. The SPT, but also the other UN bodies present here today, the NPMs and the civil society, we all have a key role to play in this regard. This lesson is the one of persistence and mobilisation against the cancer of torture that infects our societies.

In conclusion, 10 years is both a long and a short time. It is long enough to say that yes, the OPCAT is not just a document and torture prevention not simply a concept: it is a daily reality that strengthens the protection of persons deprived of liberty. It is too short to be able to measure its profound impact. So, let’s meet again in 10 years, as we are convinced that together we can prevent torture.


This speech was given at an event, on Thursday 17 November 2016, to mark the 10th anniversary of the entry into force of the OPCAT. The event was organised by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. A video recording of the event can be found here.


Staff members