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Governments must show greater commitment to tackle torture at home, special rapporteur tells human rights council

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Council Hears Statements Marking International Women’s Day, Concludes Interactive Dialogue with Special Rapporteur on Situation of Human Rights Defenders

The Human Rights Council this morning held an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It heard statements on the occasion of International Women’s Day, including by Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Council also concluded its interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

Nazhat Shameem Khan, President of the Human Rights Council, encouraged all those present to commit themselves to support and protect the rights of women everywhere. International Women’s Day was often a time for pausing, for taking stock of progress made and lessons learnt, in the ongoing journey of the empowerment of women everywhere.

Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that women, especially those belonging to marginalised and discriminated groups, had been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic due to social, political and economic models and institutions that had been excluding them for generations and continued to do so. It was time to change this. More equitable, inclusive and just post-pandemic societies must be created, based on the increasing activism of women and girls.

Mexico, on behalf of a group of countries, and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (joint statement) also took the floor on the occasion of International Women’s Day.

Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, said that over a period of four years, the cooperation of States with his mandate had been marked by a staggering failure rate of 80 per cent on country visit requests and of 90 per cent on individual communications. Consistent failure rates of 80 and 90 per cent over a period of 35 years was not just reflective of a system facing certain challenges but exposed a systemic failure which fundamentally questioned the credibility of States’ commitment to the absolute and non-derogable prohibition of torture and ill-treatment. He spoke of his mission to Maldives.

Maldives spoke as a country concerned.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers, reiterating their firm stance on the universal prohibition of torture, asked for details on the way in which States fell short of their cooperation duties with the mandate. How could the Human Rights Council help address this issue? The multilateral support system was built upon sincere engagement on the part of States, which should actively cooperate with human rights mechanisms. Speakers particularly commended those who spoke out against torture - whistle blowers and human rights defenders took great risks to hold States accountable. Some speakers said that the international community must do more to support smaller and less wealthy States, so they were able to bring their policies in line with international obligations - countries were not equally capable to respond quickly to requests for information or visits.

Speaking were European Union, Denmark on behalf of a group of Nordic and Baltic countries, Chile on behalf of a group of countries, State of Palestine, France, Libya, Ecuador, Russian Federation, Mauritania, Iraq, Indonesia, Switzerland, Belgium, Armenia, Japan, Venezuela, Iran, Namibia, Burkina Faso, Pakistan, United States, Cameroon, Malaysia, Ghana, China, Paraguay, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Fiji, Botswana, United Kingdom, Sudan, Germany, Cuba, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Georgia, Philippines, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Egypt and South Africa.

The following civil society organizations also took the floor: National Human Rights Council of Morocco, and the Office of the Human Rights Defender of Armenia.

During the meeting, the Council also concluded is interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders.

In the discussion, speakers said human rights defenders continued to suffer from reprisals and persecution and urged States to take urgent action in this regard. Others said that the noble title of human rights defender must not be given to either criminals and mercenaries in the service of foreign powers or those seeking to use the human rights system to legitimise politically motivated manipulation campaigns.

In her concluding remarks, Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, thanked the speakers for their support for the mandate. It was really important to engage with States - not only those that agreed with her, but also those that did not. Protecting human rights defenders was not rocket science - it was dependent on political will and the implementation of policies.

Speaking were Belgium, Iran, Namibia, Burkina Faso, Norway, Malta, Pakistan, United States, Cameroon, Spain, China, Chile, Croatia, Uruguay, Albania, Austria, Mexico, Montenegro, Costa Rica, Kyrgyzstan, Italy, Poland, Chad, Luxembourg, Fiji, Botswana, United Kingdom, Sierra Leone, Cuba, Afghanistan, Côte d'Ivoire, Ireland, Georgia, UN Women, Czech Republic, Tanzania, Egypt, Peru and the Organization of American States.

The following civil society organizations also took the floor: Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, World Organisation Against Torture, International Service for Human Rights, American Association of Jurists, Associacao Brasileira de Gays, Lesbicas e Transgeneros, Conselho Indigenista Missionário CIMI, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Peace Brigades International, Colombian Commission of Jurists, Stichting CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality, and Terra de Direitos.

Sri Lanka, Burkina Faso and Israel spoke in right of reply.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-sixth regular session can be found here.

The Council will next meet at 3 p.m. to hold an interactive dialogue with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on violence against children, followed by an interactive dialogue with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict. The interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment will resume on Tuesday, 9 March in the morning.

Statements on the Occasion of International Women’s Day

NAZHAT SHAMEEM KHAN, President of the Human Rights Council, encouraged all those present to commit themselves to support and protect the rights of women everywhere. International Women’s Day was often a time for pausing, for taking stock of progress made and lessons learnt, in the ongoing journey of the empowerment of women everywhere. Today, it was also a time to reflect on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, especially on those women who constituted the dark figures of unreported abuse and violence, on women who were especially vulnerable because of the intersectional forms of discrimination, and on women who worked with this Council. This was a day to celebrate their work, their achievements, and their journeys. As a woman, and as a woman of the Pacific, she was especially honoured to mark this day at the Human Rights Council.

MICHELLE BACHELET, High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she was pleased to join the commemoration of International Women’s Day at the Council. Women, especially those belonging to marginalised and discriminated groups, had been among the hardest hit by the pandemic due to social, political and economic models and institutions that had been excluding them for generations and continued to do so. It was time to change this. Evidence showed that women’s representation in politics resulted in greater investment in social protection, and greater focus on the environment and climate justice, while evidence also showed that more women in private sector leadership led to better business performance. Yet, only around 22 per cent of speakers during the Council’s high-level segment had been women, and they were also largely missing from COVID recovery task forces. This was not because of a lack of interest, but due to discrimination. Specific actions must be taken to break the cycle of exclusion. More equitable, inclusive and just post-pandemic societies must be created, based on the increasing activism of women and girls.

Mexico, speaking on behalf of a group of countries, said that achieving substantive gender equality was one of the greatest human rights challenges. Women and girls frequently faced multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and had been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Women played a key role in the response to the pandemic, keeping communities going. They represented 70 per cent of the health and social sector globally. Countries must reduce the gender pay gap to help them. The rights of women and girls needed more attention and resources to fight the rollback on sexual and reproductive rights in particular. The only effective response to the pandemic was one that had a gender perspective and facilitated a gender-responsive recovery. The crisis was an opportunity to address historical and structural shortcomings - the Human Rights Council must be a space where feminist voices could be heard.

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, in a joint statement, called on all governments to take immediate action on two of the most urgent threats facing women and girls in 2021: the deeply intertwined issues of economic injustice and environmental destruction. Neo-liberal economic policies had one rationale: the crass pursuit of financial gain at whatever cost. The result was an ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor; the denial of rights as people struggled to access healthcare, including COVID-19 vaccines, and sexual and reproductive health services, education, and community resources; and the destruction of natural resources – which, in turn, accelerated the impact of climate change on the poorest individuals and communities. Governments must take immediate action to address the wide-ranging impacts of economic injustice and environmental destruction on women and girls, on humanity, and on the planet.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders

The Council started its interactive dialogue with Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, at a previous session, and the summary can be found here.

Interactive Dialogue

Speakers said human rights defenders continued to suffer from reprisals and persecution and urged States to take urgent action in this regard. The Special Rapporteur had revealed the existence of patterns in murder cases, such as the direct or indirect threats that preceded them. This conclusion was an important element to be considered by States in detecting and preventing these deaths. It was important to develop security and protection practices, particularly as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex defenders faced stigmatisation not only for being defenders, but because of their identities. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur continued to show its relevance, not least by bringing the killing of human rights defenders to the fore. Some speakers said that there was a lack of a clear definition of “human rights defenders”, and the Special Rapporteur should rely on more credible sources.

Interim Remarks

MARY LAWLOR, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said there was reason to believe that the number of killings of female women rights defenders would increase. Women who were human rights defenders were affected by cultural stereotypes and harmful norms. There was a gender dimension in the death threats that targeted them; they could also be subjected to sexual violence. Ms. Lawlor recalled that she was bound by the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and the definition of human rights defenders outlined therein. Stressing that this Declaration was adopted by consensus after 13 years of negotiations, she assured that she knew the difference between a terrorist and a human rights defender.

Interactive Dialogue

Speakers emphasised that the killing of a human rights defender was a red line and represented the most direct attack on civil society space, noting that this report was a call to action and exposed an alarming reality. Statistics did not paint the full picture, and the real number of deaths was likely even higher - what could the Council do to address this under-reporting? Other speakers expressed their concern over particular cases in the report, noting that the Special Rapporteur must only use proven sources. The noble title of human rights defender must not be given to either criminals and mercenaries in the service of foreign powers or those seeking to use the human rights system to legitimise politically motivated manipulation campaigns. Impunity persisted as a result of lack of accountability of both State and non-State actors - what measures could be taken to combat impunity? Many speakers noted the alarming attacks and killings of indigenous human rights defenders, urging States to implement preventive measures and end the militarisation of indigenous lands. Young human rights defenders must be protected, or the new generation would grow up in fear, unable to claim their rights.

Concluding Remarks

MARY LAWLOR, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, thanked the speakers for the support they articulated to the mandate. It was really important to engage with States - not only those that agreed with her, but also those that did not. Any positive steps taken by States would be recognized. In relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, States had a responsibility to ensure that the human rights defenders exposing the truth relating to the pandemic were protected. Protecting human rights defenders was not rocket science - it was dependent on political will and the implementation of policies. The public must be educated on their rights, and human rights must be taught in schools. Regarding reprisals, Ms. Lawlor said she received many messages from defenders and hoped to strengthen cooperation in this regard.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Reports

The Council has before it the report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment A/HRC/46/26 on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and A/HRC/46/26/Add.1 on his visit to Maldives

Presentation of Reports

NILS MELZER, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, sincerely thanked the Government of Maldives for its excellent and constructive cooperation throughout his visit, adding that the biggest challenges faced by the Maldives were over-incarceration, inadequate conditions of detention, and impunity for violations. He was delighted to report that, shortly after his visit, the Government had implemented his recommendation and declared, on 26 December 2019, its recognition of the competence of the Committee against Torture to receive individual communications in accordance with article 22 of the Convention. The Government had also invited him to conduct a follow-up visit in November 2020, which unfortunately could not take place due to COVID-related travel restrictions. Turning to his thematic report, Mr. Melzer reminded those present that he had expressed grave concern at the complete lack of cooperation shown by the four States directly involved in the case of Julian Assange in response to no less than eight official communications and several press statements.

The harsh reality was that, over a period of four years, the cooperation of States with his mandate had been marked by a staggering failure rate of 80 per cent on country visit requests and of 90 per cent on individual communications. Moreover, this trend had remained largely unchanged since the establishment of the mandate in 1985. It went without saying that consistent failure rates of 80 and 90 per cent over a period of 35 years was not just reflective of a system facing certain challenges, but exposed a systemic failure which fundamentally questioned the credibility of States’ commitment to the absolute and non-derogable prohibition of torture and ill-treatment. Governments must understand that the absolute and universal prohibition of torture and ill-treatment was not some kind of declaratory slogan to be routinely repeated and celebrated at international conferences, but that it inevitably required the political determination to take difficult decisions and the courage to face uncomfortable truths – not elsewhere, but right there at home.

Statement by Country Concerned

Maldives, speaking as a country concerned, welcomed the report of the Special Rapporteur. Promoting and protecting fundamental human rights was a priority for the Government of Maldives. Elements of the Convention against Torture were already integrated into domestic law, while the Government had also conducted an audit into human rights issues in prisons. In order to address the Special Rapporteur’s main concern regarding prison overcrowding, the development of a new prison complex was recently started. A rehabilitation command was set up within the Correctional Service, as part of a wider campaign to strengthen rehabilitation capacity. Comprehensive changes to the prison parole act were also on the way. The capacity of officers within the detention facilities was being strengthened with the assistance of the United Nations, as was the oversight role of the inspector of correctional services, including ensuring unrestrained access to correctional facilities. Despite the existing challenges, the Government was committed to implementing the report’s recommendations and protecting human rights in the country.

Interactive Dialogue

Speakers, reiterating their firm stance on the universal prohibition of torture, asked for details on the way in which States fell short of their cooperation duties with the Special Rapporteur. How could the Human Rights Council help address this issue? The multilateral support system was built upon sincere engagement on the part of States, which should actively cooperate with human rights mechanisms. While States had an obligation to cooperate with Special Procedure mandate holders, they also had to demonstrate openness; it was a two-way street. Highlighting measures taken by their governments, speakers stressed that providing victims of torture and their families with crucial assistance was imperative for the respect of human rights of all. Echoing the Special Rapporteur’s remarks, they said that failure to disclose information on the fate and whereabouts of missing persons and refusal to hand over the remains of the deceased may amount to enforced disappearance.

Interim Remarks

NILS MELZER, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, said the purpose of the report was not to bring forward accusations or point fingers, but rather turn a mirror to States and lead to a greater understanding of why the current state of affairs did not foster the results that the systems had been designed to produce. To improve cooperation between stakeholders, it was up to governments to ask themselves how their responses contributed to resolving the issues. Individual communications should be seen as alerts requiring concrete measures. Objective and independent investigations into allegations of torture must be conducted.

Interactive Dialogue

Speakers noted that considering the conclusions of the report, States had to redouble their cooperation with mandate holders. As such, the proposal for the Office of the High Commissioner to lead a process identifying generic criteria to assess State interaction with Special Procedures was noted with interest. Other speakers encouraged States to issue standing invitations to all Special Procedure mandate holders. Speakers particularly commended those who spoke out against torture - whistle blowers and human rights defenders took great risks to hold States accountable. The international community must do more to support smaller and less wealthy States so that they were able to bring their policies in line with international obligations - countries were not equally capable of responding quickly to requests for information or visits. Speakers expressed alarm that in some jurisdictions, forms of torture and ill treatment had been incorporated into criminal justice systems, including coercive interrogation techniques and prolonged solitary detention.

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/03/morning-governments-must-show-greater-commitment-tackle-torture