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Committee against Torture opens its sixty-first session

GENEVA (24 July 2017) - The Committee against Torture this morning opened its sixty-first session, hearing a statement by Carla Edelenbos, Chief of the Petitions and Inquiries Section of the Human Rights Treaties Branch at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and adopting its agenda for the session.

In her opening statement, Ms. Edelenbos noted that at a time when the absolute prohibition of torture was often challenged in the name of national security across the globe, the Committee Against Torture together with the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, the Special Rapporteur on torture, and the Board of Trustees of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture had strongly reaffirmed that the practice of torture was a severe violation of human rights and had called on States to eradicate the conditions and circumstances conducive to its practice.  The High Commissioner for Human Rights had underscored the fragility of the Convention by the fact that no country abided by all of its terms.  In that regard, reference had been made to the refusal by some States to a priori scrutiny of alleged widespread violations under article 20 of the Convention.  The High Commissioner had also deplored the fact that a large number of States were host to acts of torture and ill-treatment and the related high level of impunity for their perpetrators as revealed in most of the Committee’s concluding observations.  Another large majority of States disregarded their obligations for the redress and rehabilitation of victims, a key provision of the Convention as detailed in the Committee’s General Comment No. 3 from 1992 on the implementation of article 14 of the Convention.  Finally, the High Commissioner had shed light on States which, while having no record of practicing torture were acquiescing to it by, for example, disregarding the principle of article 3 as contained in the Convention and as demonstrated under the Committee’s individual complaints procedure.  The High Commissioner had made it clear that the dangers affecting the Convention against Torture had actually been real to the entire system of international law.  It was, thus, crucial to strengthen and combine efforts of all relevant actors with a view to generating a renewed commitment from every States to combat torture and ill-treatment. 

The Committee against Torture had already taken steps to address the failure of many States to respect their human rights obligations, including their obligation to report to the Committee.  For the second time since the creation, the Committee would review the implementation of the provisions of the Convention against Torture in the absence of an initial report and for the first time with the participation of the State delegation via a video conference, which was a welcome development.  The Committee’s decision to offer the simplified reporting procedure for long overdue initial reports had also met positive reactions from most States.  The recently concluded annual meeting of treaty body chairs in New York had enabled the sharing of experiences in addressing reporting gaps.  There was a coalition of actors sparing no efforts to make the Convention against Torture a living instrument and a reality on the ground despite challenges.  Ms. Edelenbos also welcomed another concrete step that the Committee had taken in order to address violations under article 3 of the Convention which represented the bulk of the submissions under the individual complaint procedure.  The Committee’s decision to embark on the revision of the General Comment No. 1 on the implementation of article 3 of the Convention came at a time when every day migrants were being expelled, returned or deported without consideration for basic human rights, including the non-refoulement principle, and when the debate on the use of diplomatic assurances in particular in the context of the fight against terrorism was tense.  Ms. Edelenbos welcomed the fact that the Committee was systematically consulting the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture when relevant and possible under the Optional Protocol prior to its dialogues with States parties, and that it had taken the initiative to have plenary private meetings with the National Preventive Mechanisms prior to country reviews.    

In the ensuing discussion Experts raised the issue of the examination of countries that had not submitted their initial reports, as well as the continuous drop in the number of individual communications.  How could the Committee try to raise the number of decisions to bring them in line with expectations?  There had been an increase in the number of ratifications of the Convention and that perhaps the Committee could aim for the universal ratification, which meant more receiving periodic reports.  What were the guidelines provided by the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner regarding the resources allocated to the Committee in order to achieve the universal ratification?

Experts observed the incompatibility of the targets expected by the General Assembly and the resources and capacity of the secretariat to address those expectations.  Some 25 countries had never submitted their initial reports, even though they had accepted and ratified the Convention against Torture.  It was important to bring them under some sort of review.  Some countries seemed to say that they could not implement the Convention against Torture, while at the same time they reported to other committees. 

Many Member States had started to narrow the gap between the legal framework and their practice, which was sometimes a far cry from what was called the rule of law.  Some of countries had veered off the path of normalcy.  Experts thus advocated for the strengthening of the follow-up procedure on article 19 and article 20 of the Convention.

Experts also noted that there was no real follow-up on the Committee’s own concluding observations.  Accordingly, they proposed that resources be allocated to human resources in order to have regular follow-up.

Jens Modvig, Committee Chairperson, reminded that the Committee encouraged States parties to come up with a concrete plan for implementation of the Convention.  The Committee against Torture had the most advanced procedure for that.  As for the problem of non-reporting States, Mr. Modvig said that it was mainly due to the lack of capacity-building, lack of resources to draft a report, and lack of will to prioritize reporting.  He proposed to investigate non-reporting States and find out what the main problem was. 

Responding to Experts’ questions and comments, Ms. Edelenbos expressed hope that Committee Experts would discuss more in depth the strengthening of the follow-up procedure and that they would reflect on how to deal with non-reporting States.  The number of individual communications was indeed regrettably low due to the lack of staff and to the fact that the extra-budgetary resources had been taken away.  As for the next biennium, the General Assembly would meet sometime around Christmas to discuss that issue.  It was not yet known whether it would approve additional resources.  Even if it did, there probably would not be much change for the Committee Against Torture.  The formula for the calculation of resources was based on the average number of periodic report received in the past, which meant that a sudden increase in the number of received periodic reports would not immediately translate into increase of resources. 

The Committee then proceeded to adopt the programme of work and agenda of the sixty-first session. 

The Committee will next meet in public at 3 p.m. today to begin its consideration of the implementation of the Convention by Antigua and Barbuda in absence of a report.

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