Letter to the Editor

Getting to where torturers practice their profession

The list of agreements and international measures against torture is long, but this abhorrent practice is still a fact of life for thousands of people in all the countries of our region and the world.

In 1948, the international community condemned torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of the most heinous acts that humans can commit against one another. Then they passed an international convention which prohibits torture under all circumstances. A Special Rapporteur was also appointed to tackle the question of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, whose mandate is to assist countries in meeting their obligations on this matter.

However, this legal structure has failed to make the worldwide fight against torture and other ill-treatment more effective. Despite the many efforts made at both international and national levels to eradicate it, torture is deeply rooted in the institutional practices of many places for the deprivation of liberty. Add to this the efforts to legitimize its use in the fight against terrorism and organized crime, which are backed by arguments that a “hard hand” is needed to stop them. Experience, however, indicates that the use of torture has not contributed to the elimination of one or the other.

In this struggle for the eradication of torture, States and the international community have another legal tool that allows them to go directly to the victims to offer them protection. This is the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, adopted in 2002, which includes two specific instruments: the creation of a Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture and, at the national level, the establishment of one or more independent mechanisms for the prevention of torture.

Their mission: to adopt a system of regular visits to detention centers so as to prevent and strengthen the prevention of torture, as well as provide the necessary recommendations for improving the treatment and living conditions of persons deprived of liberty, which are often comparable to torture. In other words, their task is to get to where the torturers practice their profession in order to protect victims and help eradicate torture.

One need only cite the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to demonstrate the relevance and need for this international instrument: “Torture and abuse usually occur at isolated places of detention where those who practice it are sure to be outside the scope of supervision and effective accountability.” Add to that the large hurdles prisoners often face in denouncing acts of torture, especially for fear of reprisals, and it is clear that submitting places of detention to public scrutiny is an ideal way to break the vicious circle generated by impunity.

Nevertheless, although States parties to the Optional Protocol undertake to establish national mechanisms for preventing torture, of the six countries covered by the Regional Office for South America of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela), none has a national preventive mechanism in place, in accordance with the provisions of the Optional Protocol, even if bills have been introduced in some countries for several years now. There are positive developments, however, in the creation of State Committees for the Prevention and Fight Against Torture in the State of Rio de Janeiro and of Alagoas in Brazil and in the Chaco province in Argentina.

Why have we not yet succeeded in eradicating torture? There is no doubt that clear political will is required from leaders and from Congress, in order to transform policy commitments into concrete actions. This is especially true when these practices are deeply embedded in institutions – police, correctional services and other detention centers – that are so essential for democracy and for a peaceful coexistence, but which need reforms supported by plans and teams of professionals.

Putting an end to torture is what victims, society in general, and the global community as a whole implore of us. To do this, we must reach them in the very places where torturers practice their profession.

Amerigo Incalcaterra
Regional Representative for South America
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)


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