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Closing the circle for victims of torture

In offering redress to victims of torture and their families, “restoration of the dignity of the victim is the ultimate objective,” according to the UN Committee against Torture.

The Committee has just published a detailed General Comment expanding on the key article in the Convention against Torture which says that victims of torture and their families have “an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation, including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible”.

Committee Chairman, Claudio Grossman says, “Reparation and remedy are essential because they close the circle on the obligation of the State in upholding the Convention.”

In its Comment, the Committee offers a definition of redress which encompasses five principles: restitution; compensation; rehabilitation; satisfaction; and guarantees of non repetition.

Financial compensation alone does not satisfy the obligation to offer appropriate redress, according to the Committee.  Rehabilitation is also crucial and “should be holistic and include medical and psychological care as well as legal and social services.” Rehabilitation must be aimed”, the Committee says, at enabling “the maximum possible self-sufficiency and function for the individual concerned.”

A further essential element in restoring the lives of victims of torture and their families is establishing the truth of what happened. The Committee reaffirms the responsibility of States to take the steps which will reveal the abuses, investigate and prosecute the perpetrators, identify victims and their whereabouts, including their graves and offer official recognition of what has happened.

The Committee anticipates the practical and psychological difficulties victims of torture may have in seeking redress advises that it is the relevant Governments its says, must shoulder the responsibility for informing victims and their families of their rights, they must be offered legal aid if they do not have the necessary resources to proceed, and their privacy and security and that of family and supporters must be assured. 

It underlines that full redress must be provided to all victims irrespective of their sexual orientation, mental or other disability, their origin, including those from ethnic minorities or any other vulnerable groups, because the victims have been incarcerated for political reasons, for terrorist acts, or on the grounds that they are asylum-seekers or refugees.

The Committee has identified the failure of governments to act on judgments handed down in jurisdictions outside their immediate territories as a significant barrier to achieving effective redress. It recommends the development of coordinated mechanisms to “enable victims to execute judgments across State lines, including recognizing the validity of court orders from other States parties and in locating the assets of perpetrators.”

Statutes of limitations are not a valid reason either, for States refusing to acknowledge their responsibilities, according to the Committee which says, “For many victims, passage of time does not attenuate the harm and in some cases the harm may increase as a result of post-traumatic stress.”

The Committee calls on States to remove amnesties for torture or ill-treatment. It considers that amnesties “pose impermissible obstacles” for victims seeking redress and “contribute to a climate of impunity. The Committee takes the same view of immunities granted by States and affirms that, “under no circumstances may arguments of national security be used to deny redress for victims.”

The United Nations Convention against Torture which came into force in June 1987 prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of any kind. It requires States to legislate against such practices and prohibits deportation of people to countries where they risk being tortured. The Committee against Torture is comprised of independent experts who oversee and monitor implementation of the Convention, hear complaints from individuals and, at times, launch enquiries.

Each of the Committees that oversee the major international core human rights treaties issue general comments which explain and clarify particular articles in the Conventions. “General Comments are important because they provide assistance to Member States, States parties and petitioners in understanding procedures or definitions not defined in the Conventions,” Grossman says.

4 December 2012
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