OMCT boss: Committee Against Torture must get back to ‘full speed’

After an 18 month hiatus, the Committee Against Torture is back to fully functioning mode. On Monday, UN state members will meet in Geneva to elect five new experts to replace those whose terms are expiring at the end of the year.

The Geneva-based body of ten experts will continue to oversee the application of the UN Convention on torture. Between November and December, they will examine the situation in Bolivia, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Nigeria, Serbia and Sweden, as it does so every three or four years for the countries that have ratified the treaty.

Gerald Staberock, secretary general of the World Organisation Against Torture, which helps coordinate civil society work with the committee, tells Geneva Solutions why it’s essential that the body gets back to work.

Geneva Solutions: How has Covid affected the cases of torture worldwide?

Gerald Staberock: You've seen the enormous rise of police violence. We think of torture in custody and detention places. But if you think about George Floyd, it was the killing of a person but it was also torture. It's police violence, leading to torture and to death. And you have Georges Floyds all over the world. You have them in India, you have them in Kenya, you have them everywhere.

We had a situation where the issue of torture was so much more prominent because you had the closures of places, you had the dismantling of local protections and that means a vacuum where more torture happens. In that context, it's absolutely vital that international protection mechanisms exist and do their work.

GS News: The committee essentially hasn’t been fully working for 18 months. What has been the impact on the ground?

GS: As one of the defenders we work with in Kenya said, “you were not there when we needed you most”, because of the travel issues and the closure of borders. The meetings of these bodies stalled, while at the same time the problem of torture was so much bigger in a way. Mechanisms like the Committee Against Torture play now an absolutely vital role to bring back the protections and give a place where local civil society can voice their concerns and can get heard.

In an upcoming CAT session luckily resuming, Nigeria, for example, is on the agenda. In the country, police forces have been responsible for major abuses, and in the context of Covid, this came even more to the fore. Those are the type of issues that you need to be able to bring to the Committee Against Torture. Local defenders depend on that support.

GS News: The committee is fully resuming its activities, starting with electing half of its members. What’s the importance of such elections?

GS: This is a regular process of renewal in some way, but it is very important that we have members that are independent. We've seen, unfortunately, a tendency over the last years of probably less commitment to the independence and impartiality of members of treaty bodies or other United Nations appointments. We see more and more former ambassadors or people from within that structure being proposed. That's something we have to watch carefully because the strength of the United Nations treaty body system was that it had some of the leading figures, such as Sir Nigel Rodley from the UK, or Justice Bhagwati, a former chief justice of India, who really shaped some of these treaty bodies, and made them with reputation they have, and I think this is something we need to preserve.

Of course, all this happens in a context where, after the former high commissioner [Zeid Raad Al Hussein] was very outspoken, there is a pressure on the UN to be slightly less outspoken and more consensual. Some people say “we have to roll back to get the states back on board” but I think it's very problematic.

If you look at the Covid crisis, for example, we need a Committee Against Torture and other committees in their various fields to be progressive and protective, when it comes to detention issues, public protest issues or policing in popular neighbourhoods where most of the abuses occur.

We need experts that are competent and understand torture. You shouldn't only be a lawyer to deal with torture. There is an experience needed from people that have worked with victims or maybe are torture survivors themselves, that know what it means to rehabilitate victims. The committee has to have these various expertises.

GS News: Should countries that have questionable human rights records be able to present candidates?

GS: Since the experts, almost like judges, serve in their individual capacity, I would not say that a state with a doubtful record cannot propose a candidate, but the candidate has to pass the test of competence, commitment and independence. Of course, you have to look very carefully who proposed [the candidate] and who is proposed.

We call on the states to ensure that this is merit based on the competencies of fighting torture, rather than some sort of vote trading, where countries make agreements with one another and say “I vote for you so you will vote for me another time”. This is also one of the realities of the voting process and I would like to see a focus on this. For the first time ever, we had a hearing with the candidates [last week], which we co-organised with other organisations. This is also a form of transparency we should have as a standard process.

GS News: Many international bodies have continued to meet online despite Covid. Why hasn’t the committee done so too?

GS: This is a question to ask at the United Nations High commissioner’s office with respect to many of the treaty bodies, but we all have adjusted our way of working and there are ways to have virtual meetings. They are different and present challenges, for example, in terms of how do you secure the confidentiality of victims or if non-governmental organisations address the committee, there are time zone issues, etc. But I think they can all be overcome.

What we see now actually proves the case, because you have some countries that come physically for the meetings and some delegations that do it virtually. Both are possible, so there's really no excuse for United Nations protective bodies not to come back to full speed.

GS News: How much are we going back to physical presence for the upcoming evaluations?

GS: It is still in its infancy in some way. There are a few [organisations] coming. It's very important that the Swiss government provides visa support in these types of cases, even if people who are not diplomats and are not necessarily vaccinated or with the [proper] vaccination, [to ensure] that they are admitted in.