Roundtable honours 40 years of torture prevention

Thursday, May 4, 2017

In 1977, the Swiss banker, Jean-Jacques Gautier founded the Swiss Committee against Torture – the future APT – to promote his idea of preventing torture through a system of regular visits of places of detention. 40 years later, this system exists, but a lot remains to be done to deliver on the preventive promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” How can we speak of “prevention” at a time when the absolute prohibition of torture seems to be called into question in the name of a utilitarian or security discourse? On the occasion of its 40th anniversary, the APT, together with the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, organised a roundtable to shed light on the main issues and challenges posed by the prevention of torture in 2017.

Representing the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs, Raphael Nägeli underlined that torture prevention is a priority of Switzerland’s foreign policy in the human rights field,” not only because the right not to be subjected to torture is one of the most fundamental human rights, but also because “preventing torture is also preventing violence,” since people who have been ill-treated are more likely to commit acts of violence, he explained. The Deputy Chief of the FDFA’s Human Security Division added that “the Swiss diplomacy’s engagement in the fight against torture is closely linked to APT’s history.” Stressing the role of Geneva as the centre of the global fight against torture, he emphasized the strategic partnership between the APT and the Swiss Department, recognising APT’s persistence and innovative capacity.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, spoke of the challenges of prevention at a time of “collective amnesia” of documented horrors caused by torture, of official narratives trivialising and even supporting torture in the name of security and the fight against terrorism, and of the lack of strength and/or determination of the most powerful nations to respect and enforce the absolute prohibition of torture. In 2017, we need to remind that waterboarding, sleep deprivation, or prolonged solitary confinement, do constitute torture; that torture is never “clean”; that it is utterly incompatible with any notion of civilisation and human dignity; that it destroys not only the physical, mental and emotional integrity of its victims, but also that of their torturers and of the societies that tolerate it. And that any form of tolerance of torture could only lead to a slippery slope towards total arbitrariness.

“We cannot change history retroactively. Therefore, if we want to change history, we must do it in advance… That is what the prevention of torture is about,” explained the Special Rapporteur on Torture. “It is not spectacular, it is not dramatic, and most often it is not even visible […] It is to say that each victim of torture is one victim too many, and that the best achievement of justice is not to punish an act of torture but to annul it in advance by virtue of its prevention.”

Catherine Paulet, a prison psychiatrist member of both the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, shared her field experience in carrying out visits to a high number of different places of detention in various countries in Europe and in the world. A “great fan of Jean-Jacques Gautier,” she illustrated with two concrete examples the positive changes that regular prison visits could make to the conditions and treatment of persons deprived of liberty. In particular, she had witnessed slow but spectacular improvements in one psychiatric institution over 10 years.

While recognising today’s challenges, she remains convinced about the preventive approach that looks at the root causes rather than the symptoms and focuses on the dignity of the person. “Prevention is effective. If the OPCAT has been ratified by 83 States in just 10 years, it is not a merely for reasons of convenience but by conviction. So the challenge for the years to come will be that of a tireless pedagogy on the ground,” she concluded, recognising the role that each and every one of us can play in the universal fight for human dignity. “In just 40 years, ‘they did not know it was impossible, so they did it,’ and we continue Mr Gautier’s commitment and action today with humility and tenacity.”

To read more about Switzerland’s engagement in the prevention of torture, please click here.

To read more about the issues and challenges to the prevention of torture in 2017, please click here.

To read more about the work of Mrs Paulet, click here.