Independent UN Expert Indicts Governments on Torture, Other Cruel Treatment

366 views | Akpan Akata | March 10, 2021

An independent expert mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor the issue of torture globally has indicted governments of the world, alleging that they have demonstrated a lack of credible commitment to banning torture and other cruel treatment. 

UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, made the charge while presenting his latest report, which evaluates states’ response to his official communications and requests for country visits. 

“While the reactions of governments to allegations and requests transmitted to them, range from complete silence to aggressive rejection, unsubstantiated denial, bureaucratic obstruction and even sophisticated forms of pretence, the common denominator of all of these patterns is that they ensure impunity for torturers and deprive victims of reparation and redress”, he said, according to a statement.  

The report looks at how national authorities have cooperated with the UN rapporteur, based on some 500 official communications transmitted from 2016 to 2020.  Most responses, or 90 per cent, consistently fell short of the Council’s standards for cooperation.

“Over the years, nine out of 10 allegations of torture and ill-treatment officially transmitted to governments in all regions of the world either have been completely ignored or otherwise did not receive a response permitting to effectively prevent, investigate or redress the violation in question”, Melzer said.

The situation was practically the same when it came to requests for country visits, particularly in those States where torture and ill-treatment are reported to be frequent, he added.  

 “Approximately 80 per cent of our country visit requests have been ignored, postponed or declined by governments. This has prevented us from carrying out independent monitoring visits where they are most needed”, he said, noting that even states that have issued standing invitations to UN experts ignore or reject country visit requests, thus failing to honour their own commitments.

“The absolute and universal prohibition of torture and ill-treatment is not some kind of declaratory slogan to be routinely repeated and celebrated at international conferences, but that it inevitably requires the political determination to take difficult decisions and the courage to face uncomfortable truths – not elsewhere, but right there at home”, Melzer said.

He recommended that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) spearhead a process to identify agreed standards for assessing and improving interaction between States and UN human rights experts.

Similarly, a UN independent human rights expert last September said unless governments act now, millions of the world’s most vulnerable people could be pushed into contemporary forms of slavery and other exploitation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The warning came from UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Tomoya Obokata, who presented his first report to a virtual session of the UN Human Rights Council.

“Historical levels of underemployment or unemployment, loss of livelihoods and uncertain economic perspectives are some of the complex consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic which have hit the most vulnerable hardest”, he told members.

“Combined with weak safety nets and a dismantling of labour rights and social protection regulations in some countries, there is an acute risk that the poorest will be pushed into bonded labour, forced labour or other contemporary forms of slavery for survival.”  

Obokata said although States may view the dismantling of labour rights as a “quick fix” for the increasing pressure on business brought on by the ensuing global economic recession, this will come at a “high price”.

He particularly called for accountability for businesses that exploit vulnerable workers producing, processing and providing medicine, medical equipment or Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) during the pandemic.

“Labour rights must be upheld and social protection ensured across all economic sectors,” he stressed. “States must ensure that in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, no one is left behind and pushed into slavery-like practices.”

Listen to local communities 

Relatedly, governments are being called to spend more on development, both at home and abroad, and to listen to communities most in need.

The appeal was made by the UN independent human rights expert on the right to development, Saad Alfarargi, who also presented his annual report to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council.

“To maximize the impact of limited resources available for development, states and development finance institutions must put communities and individuals at the centre of their decision-making”, he said.

Alfarargi pointed out that development finance was already lagging prior to the pandemic, which has added an additional strain, particularly on the budgets of developing countries.

He urged authorities to increase assistance to developing countries, to institute progressive tax systems as means to bridge resource gaps, and to include communities in decision-making that affects them.

“People who benefit from development have voices – and we need to listen, to ensure that we target limited resources where they will matter most,” he said.

Alfarargi said communities across the globe report that they are not being involved as decision makers from the start of discussions surrounding which development projects to finance.  On the contrary, he added, development banks, governments and companies often propose projects without their input.

He called on decision-makers to create and budget for inclusive consultation processes in line with the central promise of the UN’s sustainable development agenda to leave no one behind.

About UN Special Rapporteurs 

Special Rapporteurs and other independent experts fall under what is known as the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council.

They are mandated by the Council to monitor specific country human rights situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.

They are neither UN staff, nor are they paid by the Organisation.

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