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United against torture

In a statement marking the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on 26 June, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay calls on leaders worldwide to send a clear and unequivocal message that torture will no longer be tolerated, and that those practising torture are committing a very serious crime.

Abducted by Sierra Leonean rebel militias in 1994, this boy bears the scars of torture inflicted by his captors after he tied to escape © UNICEF/ Giacomo PirozziShe points out that the prohibition of torture is absolute in international law, citing Article 2 of the Convention against Torture (CAT) which unequivocally states that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

“And no one is let off the hook – neither the actual torturers themselves, nor the policy-makers and public officials who define the policy or give the orders,” Pillay says.

Referring to the “devastating impact” of the 11 September terrorist acts on the fight to eliminate torture, the High Commissioner says “some states that had previously been careful not to practise or condone torture became less scrupulous. State lawyers began to look for ingenious ways to get round CAT, or stretch its boundaries.”

Pillay says the Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prisons, in particular, became “high-profile symbols of this regression,” and lauds President Obama of the United States for his decisions to close Guantanamo and ban methods of torture which amount to torture.

“He has set an example of what a leader can do, in terms of policy and practice, to uphold the total prohibition on torture,” the High Commissioner says, adding that “leadership is required to end this grotesque practice.”

“I believe we are finally starting to turn the page on this extremely unfortunate chapter of recent history, with counter-terrorism measures starting to move back in to line with international human rights standards.”

“There should be no half-measures”, Pillay says much still needs to be done before the Guantanamo chapter is truly brought to a close. “Its remaining inmates must either be tried before a court of law – like any other suspected criminal – or set free.”

She also emphasizes that people who order or inflict torture cannot be exonerated, as clearly stipulated in CAT, and that “the roles of certain lawyers, as well as doctors who have attended torture sessions, should also be scrutinized.”

Equally important is to help, care for and compensate victims of torture who include not just suspected terrorists and political activists, but also minor criminals and even street children, she says. A total of 146 states have ratified CAT, but torture continues to take place in prisons, police stations and other government premises in countries all around the world.

The High Commissioner calls on “leaders across the world to send a clear and unequivocal message that torture will no longer be tolerated, and that those who practice it are themselves committing a very serious crime.”

United Nations experts from several UN human rights mechanisms also issue a joint statement to mark the International Day, paying particular attention to the protection of persons with disabilities against torture. They include the Committee against Torture, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Board of Trustees of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.

26 June 2009