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UN expert: The most important obstacle to the universal eradication of torture is wilful ignorance

NEW YORK (15 October 2020) – An independent UN human rights expert today called on all States to take steps to overcome what he says is a hard-wired human tendency towards complacency with torture and other forms of abuse.

“Seventy-five years after the end of the Second World War, the international community still is not even close to eradicating torture,” Special Rapporteur Nils Melzer said in a report presented to the General Assembly. “On the contrary, while the prohibition of torture is universally recognised, there is growing complacency with such abuse, including in democracies traditionally perceiving themselves as human rights champions.”

Based on well-documented scientific research, he concluded that the primary reason States fail to prevent torture and ill-treatment is neither malicious intent, nor a lack of expertise or resources, but is to be found in neuro-biological and psycho-social factors that have shaped human decision-making throughout history.

“In fact, most human decision making is not governed by rationality, morality and common interest, but by unconscious emotional impulses pursuing short-term self-interest,” he said. “This applies not only to private citizens, but also to political leaders, officials, judges and journalists.

“When confronted with unwelcome information, all human beings naturally tend to protect themselves through denial of reality and self-deception. This is not a deviation, but an objective scientific fact. As such, it cannot be changed, but it needs to be fully understood and properly managed in order to prevent the widespread corruption, destruction and cruelty which currently engulf the world.

“The General Assembly in resolution 3452(XXX) rightly declared any act of torture or ill-treatment an offence to human dignity that is irreconcilable with the purposes of the Charter of the United Nations,” he said.

“Unless we finally start creating governance systems that effectively mitigate our innate tendency towards self-deception and denial, there is no realistic prospect that the promises of the Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Sustainable Development Goals can ever be fulfilled.”

Most importantly this requires absolute transparency and accountability for all exercise of public authority and power, he added.

“Secrecy and impunity always entail a downward spiral towards total arbitrariness and abuse,” Melzer said. “Government officials must serve the entire population, and not only their own self-interest and small influential minorities. It is therefore essential that private and public interests be systematically disentangled, including through the prohibition or restriction of private campaign funding, parliamentary lobbying, and the large-scale privatization of essential public functions.”

As the United Nations marks its 75th anniversary, Melzer strongly recommended that States urgently evaluate their own governance systems with a view to identifying  and neutralizing potential risks arising from secrecy, impunity and unchecked power, and that they fully cooperate with international mechanisms for the protection of human rights, including the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment.

The interactive dialogue will be covered live through UN WebTV in the morning session from 10:00 to 13:00 in New York.


Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent of any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact: Koat Aleer (+41 22 917 9194 / kaleer@ohchr.org).

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / rrosariodesouza@ohchr.org), Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / jlaurence@ohchr.org) and Kitty McKinsey (kmckinsey@ohchr.org)

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

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