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Opening address by Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Opening of the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Convention against Torture

4 November 2014, 15:00
Room XXVIII, Palais des Nations, Geneva

Mr. Chairperson,
Distinguished Members of the Committee against Torture,
Excellences, Colleagues and friends,

It is with great pleasure that I join you today to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment and Punishment.  This is the first time I am meeting with a treaty body in my capacity as High Commissioner and I look forward to a fruitful dialogue with you and other committees over the coming years.

Thirty years ago the international community, confronted with terrible violations of human rights by military dictatorships, adopted the Convention against Torture, possibly the most comprehensive and powerful existing instrument of international law. It strengthened recognition that torture is a crime so repugnant that its prohibition must be a fundamental norm of international law, binding all States without exception. This remains one of the few unequivocal obligations that the international community has embraced. The Convention also established the legal definition of torture, as well as the steps that States must take to eliminate it. 

The Convention has had decisive impact on a wide range of issues. In Ireland, for example, because of the Committee’s work on the topic of ill-treatment inflicted on girls and women who were involuntarily confined in religious institutions – the famous Magdalene Laundries – the Government instituted important investigations and a plan of redress.  Over 70 per cent of the Committee’s decisions concerning individual complaints by victims have been implemented, most notably a number of cases where the Committee decided that deportation of a person would be in violation of the Convention’s principle of non-refoulement.

And yet, despite that progress, it remains the case that every day – in prisons, police stations and places of detention both official and secret – women, men and children are deliberately and atrociously tortured by State agents, in order to extract information, stifle protest, or simply as punishment for what they believe and who they are. There are hundreds of thousands of such victims, in countries on every continent. They include dictatorships, countries in transition, and several States with long traditions of parliamentary democracy.

Moreover, new forms of torture and ill-treatment continue to challenge the Convention, and here I would like to highlight two important topics. Firstly, non-State armed groups, in various parts of the world, are using unprecedentedly brutal violence against targeted ethnic and religious groups. As the Committee has repeatedly emphasized, the absolute and non-derogable prohibition of torture is applicable during armed conflicts. And it is essential that we work to ensure accountability for gross human rights violations of this kind, in order to prevent their repetition. I would like to take this opportunity to praise the Committee for maintaining a commendably firm stand against amnesties, which preclude prompt and fair prosecution and punishment of perpetrators of torture or ill-treatment, and contribute to a climate of impunity.

Secondly, the human rights situation of migrants around the globe is increasingly grim. We continue to witness ill-treatment of migrants at borders; and receiving States increasingly subject migrants and asylum seekers to prolonged detention in deplorable conditions.  I am encouraged that the Committee has consistently applied the Convention to these situations, and has held that asylum seekers and undocumented migrants should never be detained ­– or, if at all, only as a measure of last resort.

Other contemporary forms of torture and ill-treatment include gender-based violence, domestic violence, female genital mutilation and trafficking.  I encourage the Committee to continue its exemplary work in adapting the Convention’s norms to such practices, and helping victims seek remedies for the injustices they have faced.

Distinguished representatives,

I would like to take the opportunity of this celebration to reinvigorate our collective efforts to combat torture and ill-treatment by advocating universal ratification of the Convention against Torture. Everyone, across the globe, has a ride to the comprehensive protection offered by the Convention. I strongly welcome the Convention against Torture Initiative led by the Governments of Chile, Denmark, Ghana, Indonesia and Morocco, which seeks to achieve universal ratification of the Convention in the next ten years. This Initiative has the full support of my Office. Ratification is not a panacea, but it is an important step. And universal ratification will send a strong signal that torture is prohibited under all circumstances, and can never be justified.

I am pleased to see that your agenda today focuses on universal ratification, as well as on implementation.  Let us ensure that today’s meeting is not just a one-day celebration, but another step that makes the Convention against Torture ever-more relevant to the protection of men, women and children for the next thirty years.

Thank you.