Our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) answer some of the most commonly asked questions about ratification of the UN Convention against Torture, domestic implementation and reporting, developed over many years from CTI’s discussions with States and their institutions around the globe.
1. What is the UN Convention against Torture - UNCAT?
The UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) is an international human rights treaty, adopted in 1984, aimed at preventing and responding to torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment around the world.
2. What are the main obligations of the Convention against Torture (UNCAT)?
The principal Convention obligations may be grouped together under the headings of prohibition, prevention, punishment, redress and reporting.
They include the following:
- Prevention: States are to take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent torture.
- Criminalisation: States are to criminalise, investigate and prosecute offences of torture under domestic law.
- Training: States are to educate and inform and train law enforcement personnel, civil or military, medical personnel, public officials or other persons involved in custody, interrogation or detention, and to include the prohibition in the rules or instructions of such professions.
- Review of procedures: States are to keep under systematic review interrogation rules, institutions, methods and custody arrangements and detention.
- Complaints and investigations: States are to adopt or adjust laws, procedures and institutions to receive, investigate and hear complaints of torture or ill-treatment. → Learn more with the CTI tool on complaints and investigations
- Prosecution and punishment: Torture offences are to be punishable with appropriate penalties taking into account the grave nature of the offence.
- Safeguards against admission of torture evidence: Evidence including statements or confessions made as a result of torture are to be excluded from any proceedings. → Learn more with the CTI tool on non-admission of torture evidence
- Cooperation on extradition: UNCAT enables and facilitates cooperation among States on extradition of those suspected of or responsible for offences of torture by establishing a scheme of cooperation. No State aims to be a safe haven for alleged perpetrators of torture. → Learn more with the CTI tool on extradition
- Protection against refoulement: States have an obligation not to expel, refoul or extradite any person to where they may risk torture. → Learn more with the CTI tool on non-refoulement
- Redress for victims: States are required to ensure that victims have an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation, including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible. In case of death, the victims’ dependents shall also be entitled to compensation. → Learn more with the CTI tool on rehabilitation
- Reporting to the UN Committee against Torture: States are required to submit periodic (every 4 years) reports to the Committee against Torture on the measures taken to implement the Convention. → Learn more with the CTI tool on reporting
3. How many countries are party to the Convention?
There are currently 171 States parties to UNCAT.
4. Which countries are party to the Convention?
The full list of States parties to UNCAT is available on the UN Treaty Collection website.
5. How many countries are not yet party to the Convention?
24 States are yet to become party to UNCAT.
6. Which States are left to ratify UNCAT?
7. What are the main functions of the Committee against Torture (CAT)?
The Committee against Torture (CAT) is a body of 10 independent experts, nominated by their government and elected by States parties to UNCAT, who monitor the implementation of UNCAT by States parties. Upon ratifying the Convention, States agree to submit an initial report within one year, after which they report every four years to the Committee on progress.
The main functions of the Committee are to:
- Examine States party reports, dialogue with the State party in a constructive way, and address its concerns and recommendations to the State party in the form of “concluding observations”;
- Review inter-State and individual communications;
- Conduct confidential inquiries in situations of “well-founded indications that torture is being systematically practiced in the territory of the State party” where the State party has accepted the inquiry procedure;
- Issue general comments providing advice to States parties on fulfiling their Convention obligations.
8. What is the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture - OPCAT?
The Optional Protocol to UNCAT (OPCAT) is a separate treaty designed to give States the practical assistance needed to effectively prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, expanding and significantly helping to fulfil the obligations found in Articles 2 and 16 of UNCAT, which requires States to take all effective measures to prevent acts of torture and ill-treatment in any territory under its jurisdiction.
OPCAT does not set new norms or standards, rather States parties take on the obligation to:
- Designate or establish a system of unannounced and unrestricted regular visits to places of deprivation of liberty by national bodies known as National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs). These bodies identify gaps in laws and practice to strengthen the protection of the dignity of all persons deprived of their liberty and their right to be free from torture and ill-treatment. They also contribute to national laws and policies.
- Permit the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture to conduct visits to any place of deprivation of liberty in the State party and make confidential recommendations to the State party.
A State may (if it so wishes) ratify the Optional Protocol at the same time as, or at any time after, ratifying UNCAT.
9. How many States are party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture - OPCAT?
Currently, as of February 2021, there are 90 States parties to OPCAT.
10. Why do States ratify UNCAT?
There are many good political, legal, humanitarian, economic, and operational reasons to ratify UNCAT.
→Link to: 10 Good Reasons to Ratify UNCAT?
11. What are some of the main obstacles to ratifying UNCAT?
In CTI’s experience, the main reasons why a few countries have not yet ratified or acceded to UNCAT is NOT because they consider that torture is acceptable or effective, but rather they face human and financial resource challenges, lack awareness of the obligations and benefits of ratification and implementation, as well as technical capacity constraints.
12. Does a State need to be fully compliant prior to ratification?
Implementation is an incremental process. No State has a perfect record. All States have at least some areas for improvement. By ratifying/acceding to UNCAT, a government makes a commitment, through an incremental process of improvement, to bring its laws and practices into line with the Convention’s provisions. Reporting to the Committee against Torture is an important part of this process of continuous improvement.
13. Can we table reservations?
Yes. While it is preferable to ratify or accede without reservations, where a State cannot accept one or two provisions of the UNCAT due to inconsistent domestic legislation or other objections, there is the possibility to table reservations or make interpretative declarations, though these should be consistent with the spirit of the treaty.
Reservations to the Convention should be withdrawn when domestic changes overcome the objection or bring the law in line with international obligations.
Reservations should be avoided to Articles 1 (definition), 3 (non-refoulement), 7 (prosecute or extradite) and 15 (exclusion of evidence obtained through torture).
→ More in the CTI Ratification Toolkit
14. What are the most common reservations?
The most common reservations are to the following two provisions:
- Article 20 which allows the UN Committee against Torture to carry out a confidential inquiry when it receives information based on “well-founded indications” that torture is being systematically practiced in the State’s territory. Cooperation with the State party must be sought. This is an optional provision, requiring the State to “opt out” at the time of ratification/accession.
- Article 30 regarding jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice to settled disputes between States parties.
→ More in the CTI Ratification Toolkit
15. When is the initial report due?
The initial report is due within one year after the entry into force of the Convention for the State party.
16. When are subsequent reports due?
After the first report, reports are due every 4 years.
17. What does a report contain?
A State Party describes how it has implemented the obligations of the Convention. The Committee will then make recommendations for further necessary reforms to enable better implementation.
States may opt for the procedure of receiving lists of issues prior to reporting, which are questions compiled by the Committee and transmitted to the State party. The lists of issues are used as a substitute for a full report.
→ Learn more in the CTI Reporting tool
18. What is the inquiry procedure?
Article 20 of the Convention provides for the Committee’s competence to carry out a confidential inquiry, where it receives reliable information of “well-founded indications that torture is being systematically practiced in the territory of the State party”. The Committee invites the State party to examine the information received and to submit its observations. Confidential inquiries may proceed without an in-country visit. However, the Committee needs to seek the cooperation of the State party, and only in agreement with the State may a visit be included.
A summary account of the proceedings undertaken may be included in the Committee against Torture’s annual report, after consultations with the State party.
States may “opt out” of the confidential inquiry procedure at the time of signature or ratification or accession, declaring that they do not recognise the competence of the Committee with regard to such inquiries (Article 28).
19. What inquiries have been carried out by the UN Committee against Torture (CAT)?
To date, the Committee against Torture has carried out and concluded 10 confidential inquiries to the following countries: Turkey (1994), Egypt (1996), Peru (2001), Sri Lanka (2002), Mexico (2003), Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) (2004), Brazil (2008), Nepal (2012), Lebanon (2014) and Egypt (2017).
20. What is the inter-State dispute mechanism?
Article 21 of the Convention provides for the competence of the Committee to receive and consider “communications” to the effect that a State party claims that another State party is not fulfilling its obligations under the Convention. For the Committee to exercise such competence, State parties have to declare they recognise the competence of the Committee to consider such communications. There are specific admissibility criteria.
21. How many States have opted into the inter-State dispute mechanism?
As of February 2021, 62 States parties have recognised the Committee’s competence in relation to Article 21.
22. How many States parties have used the inter-State dispute mechanism?
There have been no official cases where State parties have triggered the inter-State dispute mechanism in Article 21 of the Convention against another State party.
23. What is the individual complaint procedure?
State parties can “opt in” by declaring that they recognise the competence of the Committee to receive and consider communications from and on behalf of an individual subject to their jurisdiction who claims to be victim of a violation of the provisions of UNCAT.
24. How many States have opted into the individual complaints procedure?
As of February 2021, 68 States parties have recognised the Committee’s competence to hear individual complaints, under Article 22.
25. What is the definition of torture?
According to the UN Convention against Torture, “torture” is the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering on a victim by a public official or other person acting in an official capacity for a specific purpose. The list of purposes are unlimited, and include for the purposes of forcing a confession or information, punishment, intimidation, coercion, or discrimination of any kind.
“1. For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
- This article is without prejudice to any international instrument or national legislation which does or may contain provisions of wider application.”
26. What is “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”?
There is no definition of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” in the UN Convention against Torture, but it is generally considered that the distinguishing features from “torture” relate to the intensity or severity of the harm inflicted, such treatment or punishment may not be intentionally inflicted, or may lack a specific purpose. Despite its lesser character, such treatment or punishment is still prohibited by UNCAT.
Examples of ill-treatment could include, for example, poor conditions of detention, when these are not in line with the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (also known as “Nelson Mandela Rules”), such as overcrowding, lack of separation of different detainee categories (pre-trial detainees versus convicted), or poor lighting and ventilation.
27. Can a State ratify if it has the death penalty?
Yes. The death penalty is not an impediment to UNCAT ratification.
However, it is recognised that lengthy detention pending the appeal of a capital offence may be considered cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, while the manner in which the punishment is carried out may also be in conflict with the Convention. This will depend on the situation at hand and be evaluated on a case by case basis.
66 States parties to UNCAT retain the death penalty in some form in their national laws. Of these, 36 have imposed a moratorium de facto, 30 do not have a moratorium in place. Source: https://deathpenaltyworldwide.org/database/
28. Does ratifying/acceding to the Convention against Torture make it more difficult for law enforcement or security agencies to prevent terrorism and extremism?
Torture is not a tool to prevent terrorism or extremism. Often, torture is counter-productive as it delegitimizes law enforcement actors and erodes public trust. Rapport-based interviewing techniques have been proven to be effective, and there is substantial scientific literature to back this up.
29. How can UNCAT help to improve law enforcement and criminal investigations?
Torture has been shown to produce unreliable testimony and confessions, and ultimately undermine rule of law and criminal justice. It also undermines respect for the police and law enforcement agencies, leading to less cooperative witnesses and communities.
Instead, UNCAT can support police and other investigative bodies to improve their practices in criminal investigation and prosecution, and lead to safer convictions.
Additionally, being party to UNCAT can facilitate the process of obtaining extradition of alleged suspects from foreign countries. It is in fact the practice of some countries to refuse extradition to States that do not have anti- torture legislation and/or are not parties to the Convention.
30. Are amnesty laws for acts of torture compatible with UNCAT?
No. The Committee against Torture has stated that amnesties for acts of torture violate the non-derogable nature of the prohibition against torture, as they preclude or indicate an unwillingness to provide prompt and fair prosecution and punishment of alleged perpetrators. As far as the right to a remedy for victims of torture, amnesties also interfere with the victim’s right to a remedy and rehabilitation.
Some countries continue to have constitutional, legislative or other amnesties in place regarding past acts or events. While these do not prevent the State from ratifying the Convention, the Committee is likely to request their removal, over time.
- More questions?
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