Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet
24 June 2021
I thank the Convention against Torture Initiative (CTI) for the invitation to open this annual forum. I am grateful for our long-standing partnership to promote the universal ratification and implementation of the UN Convention against Torture.
I am pleased to greet all of you at this event, especially the six ‘Core States’ leading the Initiative, as well as all the other UN Member States, organizations, experts and practitioners that make up its ‘Group of Friends’.
It is encouraging to see this level of attention being paid to the topic of preventing torture and ill-treatment, including while the world is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I welcome the Initiative’s support to our field activities in this area, as well as our work in assisting several bodies: the Committee against Torture; the Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture; the Special Fund of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture; and the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and depends on donations for its activities.
This Initiative and the work of my Office are mutually supportive.
During the next hour and a half, this Forum will discuss recent developments and trends regarding the effective implementation of the Convention against Torture, sharing good practices and innovative approaches to reduce the risk of torture and ill-treatment, including in the context of COVID-19 responses.
I thank the panellists for their participation – and look forward to hearing about the experiences in their countries.
Roughly fifteen months into the pandemic, infection rates are dropping in some parts of the world, with life slowly inching back to normality. However, the virus is resurging and spreading rapidly in other areas. COVID-19 continues to create extreme hardship for millions of people and much of the world remains at risk.
Throughout this period, we have seen how the global health crisis has created unprecedented challenges for the protection of human rights worldwide, including the prohibition against torture.
The need to enforce public health regulations has frequently resulted in violations of international norms and standards on the use of force. Too often, we have seen law enforcement officials use force unnecessarily or disproportionately against people breaking curfews or other confinement measures.
The human rights situation for detainees has been particularly severe. The pandemic has unfolded alongside a worldwide prison crisis characterized by record numbers of people imprisoned globally. In 102 countries, prison occupation levels have reportedly exceeded 110 per cent.
These levels of overcrowding, along with restricted access to hygiene and health care, have left detainees exponentially more vulnerable to the virus. My office has long established that prison overcrowding, including its adverse effects on the right to health, constitutes a severe form of ill-treatment and even torture.
The pandemic is also leading to an escalation of torture and ill-treatment in detention centres by slowing or suspending judicial oversight of these places. Independent documenting of the material and living conditions of detainees is indispensable for safeguarding the prohibition against torture and ill-treatment. It must always be part of the overall COVID-19 response.
Fortunately, many States have begun to implement innovative responses to these challenges, such as early release of certain categories of low-risk detainees, remote monitoring of prison conditions, and development of health-care measures for detainees in close relationship with public health administrations.
I urge us to elaborate on these and other promising new developments. In that regard, I everyone a fruitful debate and reiterate my full support to this initiative.
I look forward to continued collaboration with you as we strive to eradicate torture.