UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture Celebrates 10-Year Anniversary

Malcolm Evans, Chair of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, addresses a press conference on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Malcolm Evans, Chair of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, addresses a press conference on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

The Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT) will host a conference celebrating its 10-year anniversary on Thursday November 17, 2016 from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. in Geneva, Switzerland. See OHCHR, 10th Anniversary of OPCAT. At the conference, stakeholders are set to discuss the SPT’s added value and examples of best practices leading to achievements in the prevention of torture, as well as challenges and the strategies for moving beyond them. See OHCHR, 10th Anniversary of OPCAT. As a United Nations human rights treaty body with a unique mandate and working methods, the SPT has demonstrated the benefits and challenges of a collaborative and advisory relationship with States in its first decade. A live webcast of the event will be available during the conference, and speeches will be available online later.

In this news post, SPT member (and IJRC Board of Directors member) Victor Madrigal-Borloz shares his reflections on the role of the SPT in the prevention of torture. These reflections are included in the discussion of the SPT’s work, and cover topics concerning the triangular relationship between the SPT, National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs), and States parties; the development of the SPT doctrine around the prevention of torture, particularly for those most vulnerable; and the important role of a civil society that faces risks of a shrinking space.

10-Year Anniversary Celebration Event

The 10-year anniversary event commemorates the entry into force of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), under which the SPT was created, and reflects on the SPT’s innovative work. International experts will make introductory remarks and lead two panels and plenary discussions during which various stakeholders, including UN Member States, UN mechanisms and bodies, intergovernmental bodies, non-governmental organizations, and academics, may engage. See OHCHR, 10th Anniversary of OPCAT; OHCHR, 10th Anniversary of OPCAT Programme.

Four speakers representing the SPT, the UN, and the International Committee of the Red Cross will make the introductory remarks. Those speakers are Sir Malcom Evans, Chairperson of the SPT; Mr. Michael Moller, Director General of the United Nations Office at Geneva; Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Ms. Christine Beerli, Vice President of the International Committee of the Red Cross. See OHCHR, 10th Anniversary of OPCAT Programme.

The first panel of the conference will focus on the 10 years that the SPT has been in force, and the ways in which the SPT has contributed to the prevention of torture through examples of its achievements. The panel will be moderated by Suzanne Jabbour, a member of the SPT, and will include panelists representing the Committee against Torture and national preventative mechanisms, among other institutions and positions.

The second panel will discuss the cooperative role that the SPT plays between States parties and National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) and identify major challenges moving forward. See OHCHR, 10th Anniversary of OPCAT. The panel will be moderated by Victor Madrigal-Borloz, a member of the SPT, and will include panelists representing States and the SPT, among other institutions and mechanisms. See OHCHR, 10th Anniversary of OPCAT Programme.

Getting to Know the SPT

The SPT is a treaty body with a preventive mandate that first began its work in February 2007 after OPCAT entered into force in June 2006. See OHCHR, OPCAT Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. The SPT focuses on creative and sustainable approaches to the prevention of torture and ill-treatment, facilitated through a coordinated relationship between SPT, States parties, and NPMs, as well as the SPT engagement with relevant UN mechanisms, international bodies, and regional institutions. See OHCHR, OPCAT Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. The SPT comprises 25 independent experts, who are elected by States parties to the OPCAT. See OHCHR, OPCAT Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.

The SPT Functions and Principles

The SPT’s work is based on a triangular relationship between the SPT, States parties, and National Preventive Mechanisms. As a prevention-oriented treaty body, the SPT has two primary functions: to initiate visits to States parties in any place where individuals may be deprived of their liberty and to provide assistance to States parties on the formation and maintenance of NPMs. See IJRC, Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. See also OHCHR, OPCAT Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. While the SPT does not hear complaints, undertake inquiries, or issue general comments, it does develop general guidance for States in protecting the rights of detainees. See IJRC, Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.

In the view of SPT member Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the SPT’s preventive function is a great strength of its work and one that is not fully understood by many. He describes the SPT as having contributed to the development of a “systematic approach to the prevention of torture,” in which it did not “establish a system of territoriality or hierarchy” and in which all three entities “operate and influence one another reciprocally.” Despite a lack of hierarchy, Madrigal-Borloz noted that the relationship provides a “clear link” between the three, allowing the SPT to have “direct relations with NPMs,” that is both innovative and atypical of the relationship that most international human rights bodies have, which is usually between the body and the State party. This relationship allows NPMs to develop independently, but also to have the benefit of the SPT’s support and guidance.

The foundational principals of the SPT include confidentiality, impartiality, non-selectivity, universality, and objectivity, and the SPT seeks to protect from reprisals those who assist the subcommittee. See OHCHR, OPCAT Factfile on SPT. Madrigal-Borloz shared his view that a great strength of the SPT is its preventive approach as “advisors of the State rather than a monitoring mechanism,” in which the SPT can add value to the prevention system through “technical advice” and working with a State party. Further, he underscored the principle of absolute confidentiality, which was inspired by the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and which aids the SPT in requiring “unrestricted and unhindered” access to places of detention and to information while the SPT works with a State.

The SPT meets three times a year in Geneva, presents an annual report to the Committee against Torture and the United Nations General Assembly, and has adopted substantive papers on topics including judicial overview, due process, the prevention of torture and ill-treatment of women and LGBTI persons, and corruption. See OHCHR, OPCAT Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. See also International Justice Resource Center, Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.

SPT State Visits

Since its establishment, the SPT has undertaken 51 visits, 36 of which were country or follow-up visits and 15 of which were advisory visits. NPM advisory visits and OPCAT advisory visits focus on strengthening the NPM to better protect persons deprived of liberty in the case of the former and to engage in talks with officials and government bodies to fully implement the States’ obligations under OPCAT in the case of the latter. Recent visits include trips to Mauritania, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Mozambique, Romania, Tunisia, Chile, Cyprus, Benin, Brazil, and Turkey. See OHCHR, Visits and public reports (chronological order).

A country visit entails sending a delegation of at least two members of the SPT, who may be accompanied by experts chosen from a roster prepared by States parties, the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR), and the United Nations Centre for International Crime Prevention, to the relevant country. See International Justice Resource Center, Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. The SPT visits places where individuals have been deprived of liberty, including police stations, prisons, detention centers, and mental health and social care institutions. See OHCHR, OPCAT Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. The SPT analyzes how detainees are treated in detention, considers the conditions of detention, the legislative and institutional frameworks, and speaks privately with individuals in custody, government representatives, custodial staff, lawyers, and doctors. See OHCHR, OPCAT Factfile on SPT; OHCHR, OPCAT Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.

A statement adopted by SPT in 2014 clarified that pursuant to articles 12 and 14 of OPCAT, States are obligated to provide the SPT with unrestricted access to any place where individuals may be deprived of liberty, their installations and facilities, and to all relevant information. If before, or during, the visit the SPT encounters an obstacle to its mandate, the SPT can suspend or terminate its visit to be resumed once obstacles have been addressed. In the event a State party fails to address known obstacles, the SPT can “use all appropriate measures,” to encourage cooperation, including publishing its preliminary report on the country, or issuing a public statement. See SPT, Obligations of State Parties to OPCAT to facilitate the visits of the SPT, UN Doc. CAT/OP/24/1, 9 December 2014, paras. 1-5.

One of the challenges facing the SPT, like other human rights bodies, is its dependence on States’ willingness to cooperate with it. Madrigal-Borloz commented that with regard to complying with obligations, the SPT expects States parties to show a good faith interest and a willingness to hear the advice of the SPT and to provide the SPT with access, but that States parties would not necessarily need to adopt the views of the SPT. In the absence of this cooperation, the SPT may decide not to visit a particular country. In deciding whether to undertake a visit, according to Madrigal-Borloz, the SPT also assesses the risk of reprisals to those who would provide information to the Subcommittee.

At the conclusion of its visits the SPT creates a confidential report that includes recommendations and observations, and transmits it to the State party concerned for a response within six months. This report will form the basis for follow-up discussions with the State party to measure the extent that recommendations have been implemented. See OHCHR, OPCAT Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. In his interview, Madrigal-Borloz shared his experience that these reports are a great way to facilitate future engagement because they provide a particularly relevant and complete foundation of information relevant to the SPT’s mandate. Madrigal-Borloz describes them as a “blueprint” for future work. At the request of States parties or NPMs, 23 reports of the SPT have been made public, pursuant to Article 16(2) of OPCAT, according to OHCHR staff. SPT reports are generally kept confidential until States indicate that they may be published. See OHCHR, Regular SPT Visit.

The SPT has issued guidelines in relation to visits to States parties under article 11(a) of OPCAT.

SPT Assistance to NPMs

Under Article 17 of OPCAT, States parties are obligated to establish NPMs and the SPT provides guidance on the establishment of these bodies regarding NPM mandates, powers, and methods of working. See OHCHR, OPCAT Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. The SPT participates in ongoing conversations with NPMs. See OHCHR, OPCAT Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. Madrigal-Borloz highlighted the SPT engagement with NPMs as one of the major successes of the SPT in its first 10 years, specifically the SPT’s role of “facilitating the transfer of knowledge,” thereby making NPMs more active and effective than they might be without the SPT, and the SPT’s eagerness to share best practices and comparative experiences with interested States parties.

The SPT produced a set of guidelines for the establishment and operation of NPMs, as well as an assessment tool for NPMs. The SPT has also consolidated advice that would apply generally to NPMs in a document titled “Compilation of SPT Advices to NPMs”. See OHCHR, OPCAT Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.

SPT Coordination with Civil Society

The SPT coordinates with and relies upon civil society, including those organizations in the OPCAT Contact Group. See OHCHR, OPCAT Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. In his interview with IJRC, Madrigal-Borloz spoke extensively about the role of civil society in the prevention of torture and ill-treatment. He noted, for example, in countries where the civil society is strong, the SPT can base a lot of its work on observations from civil society. He reflected that civil society contributions are most helpful when they avoid generic denunciations in favor of evidenced based, specific information, or “give visibility to areas usually very hidden” with respect to particularly vulnerable groups. Madrigal-Borloz shared his concern that the SPT works in a context where there is a “shrinking space for civil society,” such that civil society is restricted or under attack. This, he says, requires greater protection against reprisals to avoid a situation where providing information to the SPT increases personal risk.

Madrigal-Borloz reflected on the SPT’s development of doctrine relating to the prevention of torture and ill-treatment of LGBTI persons and of torture and ill-treatment based on gender, as promising conceptual constructions for how to deal with areas of concern. In the next 10 years, he contemplates that the SPT will continue to grow in its role of “harvesting and sharing knowledge,” to equip NPMs, and to strive for a balance between what is practical and what is principled, what is measurable, and what can inspire systemic change.

Additional Information

For more information on the SPT, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.