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Committee against Torture Opens Seventieth Online Session

26 April 2021

The Committee against Torture this afternoon opened its seventieth online session, hearing a statement by Mahamane Cissé-Gouro, Director of the Human Rights Council and Treaty Mechanisms Division at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Committee also adopted its agenda and programme of work for the session.

Mr. Cissé-Gouro at the outset congratulated Claude Heller, who had been serving as the Acting Chairperson of the Committee against Torture since March 2021, and paid tribute to Jens Modvig, who had resigned from the Committee due to new professional responsibilities. The COVID-19 pandemic had been ongoing for more than a year, causing major damage to human rights protection across the globe, including in the area of torture prevention. As the Committee had pointed out, along with other United Nations anti-torture mechanisms on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture last year, the “coronavirus crisis has highlighted institutional and procedural failures that have exacerbated the risk of torture and ill-treatment for countless children, women and men in all regions of the world”.

In these circumstances, the active engagement of the Committee and other treaty bodies was more crucial than ever. The suspension of in-person meetings had slowed down the work of this and other Committees. Yet, as the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, had highlighted in her letter of 25 March 2021 to Member States, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the liquidity crisis, since 2020, treaty bodies had completed 27 States party reviews, 39 concluding observations and 239 views and decisions related to individual communications.

Mr. Cissé-Gouro pointed out that, despite all the obstacles affecting all Committees without exception, the majority of treaty bodies had decided to have online sessions since the start of the pandemic and to continue their main activities in 2020 such as discussing and adopting individual complaints on the merits during private online sessions and, since the beginning of 2021, online country reviews for States that accepted the new dialogue format. Since the start of the pandemic, the Committee against Torture had continued some of its crucial activities such as the registration of individual complaints and the granting of interim protective measures, the constant work of the Rapporteur on reprisals and the Rapporteur on follow-up on final observations, the adoption of the lists of questions and lists of questions prior to reporting, and finally the work of the Working Group on individual complaints.

While aware of the constraints and the considerable efforts that online work required, Mr. Cissé-Gouro strongly encouraged the Committee to resume the discussion and adoption of individual complaints on the merits as well as the dialogue with States within the framework of work online and without setting a precedent for the future. As had been the case for the Committees that had continued their activities since the start of the pandemic, this Committee could count on the assiduous support of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to help it face the major challenges generated by COVID-19.

Acting Committee Chairperson Claude Heller said the statement the Committee had just heard did not provide any certainty, notably as regard the human resources needs. There was a gap between the rhetoric and the available resources. What was at stake was not the future of the Committee, but indeed that of the treaty body system and the universal human rights system. The world was witnessing a major backsliding, and this was a serious issue, he emphasised.

The Committee then proceeded to adopt the agenda of the seventieth session.

Mr. Heller, thanking former Chairperson Jens Modvig for his dedication and his constant efforts to find solutions by consensus in the Committee, said the Committee was meeting again under exceptional circumstances. Owing to these obstacles, the Committee had not been so far in a position to carry out its main activities, namely the consideration of country dialogues, and the discussion and adoption of decisions on individual complaints and inquiries under article 20. Multilingualism and collegiality with the participation of all members were key working conditions for the Committee.

At the same time, the Committee against Torture had continued to perform some of its key activities: the Committee’s Rapporteur on new complaints and interim measures had registered new cases and issued interim measures of protection, the Committee’s Rapporteur for follow-up under article 19 as well as the Rapporteur on reprisals had also continued their activities. The Committee had also discussed and adopted by email and through a meaningful voting procedure its Lists of Issues and Lists of Issues Prior Reporting. And the Working Group on individual communications had held its work online which led to the Committee’s decisions to adopt 4 inadmissibility drafts and discontinue 20 cases.

Mr. Heller said that another worrying development was the fact that even if the Committee went back to normality with in-situ sessions, it would still and again face the issue of the lack of sufficient resources allocated to treaty bodies. As highlighted by the High Commissioner in her letter of 25 March 2021 to States, at the end of 2020, the General Assembly had not approved an increase in requested staff resources, in particular for assisting the human rights treaty bodies in processing and considering individual communications, which had increased by 80 per cent over the previous reporting period. In 2021, also in light of the on-going Secretariat-wide regular budget recruitment freeze, supporting the additional meeting time from within existing resources would continue to exceed the capacity of the Office. Even if the regular budget recruitment freeze were to be lifted, the staff resources would still be less than 50 per cent of what had actually been assessed as necessary based on the meeting time.

Diego Rodriguez-Pinzon, Committee Rapporteur, said the Committee still had to find ways to fulfil all aspects of its mandate. The Chairperson, the Members of the Bureau and the Rapporteur had continued to perform their tasks entrusted to them before the outbreak and would continue to do so until the Committee was able to meet in person. Following the resignation of Mr. Modvig, Claude Heller had been appointed Acting Chairperson. The Committee had maintained its activities related to 40 reports that had been submitted by State parties to the Convention; continued its follow-up work pursuant to concluding observations; and had recorded 65 communications from persons alleging violations pursuant to article 22 of the Convention, and issued 42 interim measures. The Working Group on individual communications had continued to take decisions on communications that could be discontinued or declared inadmissible. Out of 25 individual communications, 4 were declared inadmissible, 20 were suspended and the consideration of 1 communication had been postponed to the next session. The Committee had been unable to carry out any country reviews, and this had generated a backlog. The Committee had not been able to debate the merit or substance of individual communications and therefore had not rendered decisions on individual communications, the Rapporteur explained.

Sébastien Touzé, Committee Expert, stressed the importance of being reactive in the face of the pandemic. The situation remained partially hazy with regards to methods of work. Flexibility was also key, and the competencies of the Working Group on individual communications should be bolstered. He said adaptation was also necessary and the Committee should consider the review of State reports accordingly.

All the documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage.

The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings is available via the following link: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/.

The Committee will next reconvene in public at 2.20 p.m. on Wednesday, 28 April, to close the session.

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/04/committee-against-torture-opens-seventieth-online-session