Annual Forum 2021: CTI friends reinforce commitment towards torture-free future

On 24 June 2021,  the Convention against Torture Initiative (CTI) held its 2020-2021 Annual Forum on ‘Promising new developments and trends towards eradicating torture: Long-term Lessons from Covid-19 Responses’ in commemoration of International Day in Support of Torture Victims marked on the 26th of June. Held online and by invitation only, the Annual Forum convened CTI’s Group of Friends and other invitees, which consisted of over 80 participants (comprised of 17 States, 22 international or non-governmental organisations, and 15 expert friends) to engage in constructive, forward-looking discussions.

During the high-level event, CTI’s Group of Friends which includes States, NGOs and Expert Friends, explored  challenges and promising practices in the field of torture prevention and the effective implementation of UNCAT observed during the Covid-19 pandemic, and discussed recent international legal and practical developments in the combat against torture and other ill-treatment.  The Forum served to reinvigorate CTI’s efforts to engage with non-States-Parties to UNCAT, to raise awareness and encourage ratification as well as to promote the assistance that CTI can provide.

CTI takes this opportunity to call on all UN Member States as well as other stakeholders everywhere to unite in support of the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who have been victims of torture and those who are still tortured today. We, the Core States of the CTI, see the ratification of the UN Convention against Torture as a prerequisite to effectively eradicate this practice once and for all.

H.E. Omar Zniber, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Morocco to the United Nations in Geneva

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented challenges for State authorities and the protection of human rights across the globe, including the right to be free from torture. Panellists, namely Dr Solomon Dersso, the Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, Suzanne Jabbour, the Chairperson of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT) and Anna Giudice, Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)’s Justice Section, explained shortcomings and promising practices in policing during the pandemic and in the management and monitoring of places of detention from different geographical and thematic angles. They highlighted the rising human rights concerns triggered by broad discretion and excessive use of force by the police and other security forces in the enforcement of initial lockdown measures observed in numerous States, and underlined the necessity to decongest places of detention in order to reduce the risk of ill-treatment, the transmission of Covid-19 and protect the health of inmates and staff alike.

The discussions also noted that the pandemic has offered States an opportunity and an incentive to rethink in particular how law enforcement agencies, prisons and criminal justice systems work and what can be done to improve compliance with human rights obligations and standards.

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. Many States have begun to implement innovative responses 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 to elaborate on promising new developments.

H.E. Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

The Chair of the SPT, Suzanne Jabbour, positively indicated that many States were able, in a very short time, to reduce their prison population, a recommendation often made by the SPT. Other promising developments include efforts to better regulate and monitor policing and other law enforcement activities, improvements to health and sanitation measures in places of detention, the establishment of new or updated complaint mechanisms and improved access to information and communication to guarantee contact with the outside world in prisons and other places of deprivation of liberty. CTI compiled these and other promising practices related to the prevention of torture during Covid-19 in its advisory note on Covid-19 and the UN Convention against Torture.

Several African States have adopted specific guidelines on policing during Covid-19 to address loopholes created by the wide discretion to law enforcement which led to excessive use of force, arbitrary detentions or even torture. These positive efforts are further strengthened by the recent adoption of a new resolution of the African Commission which provides for specific guidelines for the prevention of torture, inhuman treatment and arbitrary detention for African States.

Dr Solomon Dersso, Chairperson of the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights

This year’s Annual Forum also provided an opportunity for CTI’s friends to hear about progress made in reaching CTI’s goals in accordance with its Strategy 2020- 2022. For 2021, this included two online workshops – the first hosted by CTI Core State Ghana in April  for five West African States on Investigative Interviewing; and the second hosted by CTI Core State Fiji for 11 Pacific SIDS in May on building effective anti-torture legislative frameworks. As underscored by the six CTI Core States during the event, capacity building in supporting States to prevent torture and other ill-treatment in the first hours of police custody, the implementation of non-coercive interviewing and other aspects of policing, alongside strengthening justice, laws and institutions, will remain key priorities for CTI in the upcoming years.

Many governments are thirsty for advice and assistance that is non-judgmental, allowing authorities to be honest and realistic about the type and scale of their challenges, past mistakes and shortfalls, and to take the decision to make important changes.

Dr Alice Edwards, outgoing Head of CTI Secretariat

CTI’s friends and guests were also invited to provide input and advice to CTI on upcoming activities and tackling the remaining challenges standing in the way of global ratification and the effective implementation of UNCAT. The discussions underlined that in light of the historic upheaval of the past 18 months, the relevance and urgency of CTI’s work to support the effective implementation of anti-torture measures, including the promotion of professionalism in police and law enforcement services remains steadfast and clear.

Our ratification rate is currently tracking higher than almost all other core human rights treaties, UNCAT was the most ratified treaty in 2020. We are convinced by experience that providing an alternative, State-led, equality-based initiative, which applies a no-name, no-shame basis in all our activities, has given space for previously reluctant countries to come on board.

H.E. Ramses Joseph Cleland, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Ghana to the United Nations in Geneva

The Forum also coincided with the departure of CTI Head of Secretariat, Dr Alice Edwards, who was commended by the six Core States as a “force for good, who has steered CTI’s transition from an initial start-up project into a well-functioning, collaborative and successful organisation in its own right”.

In his concluding remarks, H.E. Anare Leweniqila, Chargé d’Affaires and Deputy Permanent Representative of Fiji to the UN in Geneva, stated that “As CTI Core States we believe in a torture-free world. Achieving universality of UNCAT and its effective implementation is an important step in this direction and we are committed to continue working towards this end. We are excited about making this happen with all your support.”

The concept note, final programme, opening remarks and other speeches of the event are available here.

The message from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet is available here.

To learn more about CTI’s work and achievements, see our latest annual report here.

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