Afghanistan’s Record on Torture to Come under UN Scrutiny
Author : Kate Clark
On 24 and 25 April 2017, Afghanistan’s record on torture will be reviewed by a committee of experts under the auspices of the Convention Against Torture (CAT). The CAT Committee will hear from the government, United Nations human rights officials and NGOs before making recommendations. In the weeks leading up to the committee meeting, the government has been scrambling to put new legislation and mechanisms in place, but it may not be enough to deflect criticism. UNAMA has already said there has been an increase in the use of torture since its last report in 2015, and perpetrators are still not being prosecuted, or even sacked. AAN’s Kate Clark (with input from Sari Kouvo and Ehsan Qaane) here answers some questions on how the CAT Committee works, how the government is defending itself and what Afghanistan’s record on torture is.
AAN’s reports on detentions and torture can be found in our Detentions and Torture Dossier. It bring together dispatches and reports on detentions by United States forces on Afghan soil and by the Afghan state, and the detention of Afghans by the US in Guantanamo Bay.
How does the Convention Against Torture work?
Afghanistan signed the International Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) in 1984 and it came into force 1987. The Afghan constitution recognises the country’s commitments under international law and confirms its obligation to comply with them. A committee overseeing the implementation of the Convention is due to review Afghanistan’s record on torture on 25 and 26 April 2017 (See the agenda and read documents here (read them here). The committee is made up of independent experts selected from different United Nations member states and meets regularly in Geneva where it is serviced by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Its main obligations are: dialogue with member states on their periodic reports; dealing with complaints from states that have accepted the individual complaints procedure (ie states that have signed and ratified the CAT Optional Protocol – more of which later); and developing and adopting general comments that are interpretative statements about the implementation of the Convention, (see here) for detail on Afghanistan’s session.
According to the CAT, all state parties should regularly report to the Committee. Afghanistan did submit its initial periodic report in 1992 – during the civil war! – but there was then a long, long lapse. In 2010, the CAT Committee issued a request for “Specific information on the implementation of articles 1 to 16 of the Convention,” a list of questions and issues which it wanted Afghanistan to address. Afghanistan responded to these in a report dated May 2016. It was the first report prepared by the Afghan government and submitted to the CAT Committee in a quarter of a century.
The government’s response to the CAT Committee involved a lot of listing of laws as evidence of action, rather than actual action. It ignored many requests for specific information or obfuscated in its answers. For example, question 2 from the CAT committee asked for “current criminal provisions concerning offences such as attempted acts of torture, instigation or consent of torture or the order to commit torture by a person in authority and the exact penalties imposed for any of these offences” and the number and nature of the cases (including geographical location of the offences prosecuted) and the penalties imposed or the reasons for acquittal. The government just described the law, giving no information about how – or indeed whether – it had actually been carried out.
However, there is a tradition within the UN human rights treaty body system of civil society and other groups submitting what are called ‘shadow reports’. These are alternative reports that can clarify or, as needed, challenge the information provided by the government. Human Rights Watch, Open Society Afghanistan and the Civil Society and Human Rights Network (CSHRN) in cooperation with eight other Afghan civil society organizations have submitted such reports. The CSHRN’s report, which is the first report in its kind submitted from Afghan civil society to the CAT Committee, says the government’s response to the Committee “falls short in addressing the most pressing issues when [the report] comes to the absolute prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment." The biggest challenge, it says, “remains the implementation of existing laws.” The Afghan Independent Commission for Human Rights (AIHRC) has also submitted its investigations into state agencies’ use of torture