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Forensic services must be independent from law enforcement agencies – UN Rapporteur on torture

NEW YORK (21 October 2014) – To be ‘effective’, an investigation into torture must be prompt, impartial, independent and thorough, but that seems to be the exception in many countries, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, has said today.

“If medical staff, including forensic doctors, serve under law enforcement or security agencies or the prison sector, they may have conflicted loyalty between their employer and their professional obligation to report torture or ill-treatment, out of fear of jeopardizing their employment or other reprisals,” he warned during the presentation of his latest report* to the UN General Assembly.

The human rights expert noted that, in many jurisdictions, forensic services are closely linked with law enforcement agencies and criminal forensic investigations are undertaken in-house by police services.

“In the context of allegations of torture or other ill-treatment, the provision of forensic services from within the police force and lack of independent oversight has been criticized by me on previous occasions and my mandate has recommended that systems be reorganized to ensure independence from the police,” Mr. Méndez said.

“In those cases,” the Special Rapporteur stressed, “it should be mandatory to submit the person to an independent assessment, external from prison medical services.”

In his report, the human rights expert urges governments to undertake effective investigations whenever there are indications of torture or other ill-treatment, even without an express or formal complaint.

“Forensic science has a key role to play regarding the obligation of States to investigate and prosecute allegations of torture or other ill-treatment, especially with regard to individual responsibility and the fight against impunity,” he said.

“During my visits I often observe that States are reluctant to carry out criminal investigations into torture allegations and that accurate statistics on the incidence of torture are difficult to obtain. The lack of investigation, together with the lack of accountability, perpetuates the practice of torture and other ill-treatment,” the UN expert cautioned.

Torture may cause physical injury such as broken bones and wounds that heal slowly, or may leave no physical scars. It often takes place in secret, behind closed doors where there are no witnesses, and many torture methods used are becoming increasingly sophisticated and designed to be as painful as possible without leaving physical marks.

The same applies when torture is predominantly of a psychological nature, such as sexual humiliation and threats to the life or physical integrity of the person detained or of his or her family. Forensic science however may detect and ultimately prove torture and other ill-treatment.

States have an obligation to put in place and apply an effective process of evidence collection in line with the Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Istanbul Protocol).

“In my report, I noted that it is the exception that victims are examined shortly after the torture actually happened. More commonly, while the victim is in custody, the State often is the only one in a position to undertake examinations,” he said.

In these circumstances, the expert warned, “examinations are frequently conducted that are neither independent nor impartial or victims are examined only after alleged victims manage to get released from detention and some even flee the country, in which case the lesions have healed, leaving no scars or only a few.”

During his country visits, the Special Rapporteur has reviewed samples of medical certificates by State health experts and forensic assessments and found the majority of those reviewed of very poor quality and accuracy, not performed in accordance with the minimum international standards for clinical forensic assessment of victims, and unacceptable as forensic evidence.

“Governments often argue that a high standard of forensic evidence is out of the reach of States with limited resources,” he said. “However, in my report I noted that the diagnosis of torture is usually not based on ‘high-tech’ methods or cost intensive equipment and that forensic assessment of torture is less a question of financial resources than of training and commitment by the authorities to ensure effective investigation into allegations of torture.”

(*) Read the full report by the Special Rapporteur: http://www.un.org/en/ga/third/69/documentslist.shtml

Juan E. Méndez (Argentina) was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in November 2010. He is independent from any government and serves in his individual capacity. Mr. Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defense of human rights, and has a long and distinguished record of advocacy throughout the Americas. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Torture/SRTorture/Pages/SRTortureIndex.aspx or http://antitorture.org/

Check the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CAT.aspx

For more information and media requests please contact:
In New York:
André-Michel Essoungou, (+1 917 367 9995 / Cell: +1 917 940 0685 / essoungou@un.org)
Nenad Vasic (+1 212 963 5998 / Cell: +1 917 941 7558 / vasic@un.org)

In Geneva:
Ms. Stephanie Selg (+ 41 79 444 3993 / sselg@ohchr.org) or write to sr-torture@ohchr.org

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Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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