Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

OHCHR

Thank you to the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights for hosting this event. It is an honour to be here with you today.

Torture can have wide-ranging and complex forms. At its simplest, it implies the infliction of unbearable mental and physical pain on fellow human beings who are defenceless and captive.

It is an act of extreme cowardice. And it is one of the most brutal human rights violations that exist. As such, its absolute prohibition forms part of customary international law.

Torture is not only illegal, it is repugnant, and corrosive, and leaves in its wake deep trauma and suffering.

Over two decades ago, my Office published the first edition of the Istanbul Protocol, after extensive consultations and work by a broad range of stakeholders. It was a milestone moment in the fight against torture.

It has been since used worldwide and routinely relied upon by national bodies, civil society organizations, individual practitioners and international human rights mechanisms.

The updates to the original chapters that are being presented include recent jurisprudence on torture prevention, accountability and effective remedies. The new content also provides added guidance for judges, prosecutors and health professionals, outlining good practices on legal investigations of torture and ill-treatment. It also provides guidance to States on the effective implementation of its international obligations to prevent and fight torture and ill-treatment.

Colleagues,

The international community committed to eradicate torture when it adopted the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. No less than 173 States have today ratified the Convention.

In doing so, countries accept a legal obligation to proactively prevent torture and other ill-treatment, including through legislative reform, training and monitoring, and to ensure accountability. They also have the duty to provide victims with adequate redress, including rehabilitation.

But despite our shared commitment to prevent and eradicate torture and ill treatment, we continue to observe and document it across the globe.

From places of deprivation of liberty, to conflict-related situations, amidst demonstrations and their suppression, or as part of investigation methods, torture remains pervasive and endemic. It happens more often against persons living in poverty, to make them confess crimes they often did not commit, and at times can also be related to the lack of forensic capacity related to crime-solving targets by investigative authorities.

We are a long way from winning the battle. In 2021, the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture assisted more than 47,000 torture victims and their families in 79 countries

We know today that the regular monitoring of places of deprivation of liberty by national and international independent oversight mechanisms is one of the most effective methods of preventing torture.

We also know that when torture happens, properly trained professionals must have prompt and unimpeded access to victims and witnesses. This is crucial to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable and that victims have access to redress measures.

Colleagues,

The Istanbul Protocol continues to serve as a landmark reference in such medico-legal investigations and documentation.

The United Nations anti-torture mechanisms, such as the Committee against Torture and the Sub-Committee on Prevention of Torture and the Special Rapporteur on torture have routinely recommended that countries establish and provide training programmes for personnel tasked with medical examinations on the assessment of torture and ill-treatment. They have stated that these programmes must be in accordance with international standards and guidelines, including the Istanbul Protocol. They have also encouraged training of the prosecution and the judiciary on how to evaluate forensic reports.

The UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture has for years also been supporting civil society organizations to document acts of torture in line with the Istanbul Protocol’s methodology.

In addition, the Istanbul Protocol has guided the work of international accountability mechanisms, including investigations, commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions. These mechanisms, which my Office continues to provide expertise and support to, are increasingly turned into responding to serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

We are keenly aware that investigations into torture and ill-treatment allegations are complex, wide-ranging, and require multi-disciplinary expertise.

For this reason, effective clinical investigations and documentation, which include gathering rigorous testimonial evidence as well as physical and psychological evidence, are essential to corroborate allegations.

As the four UN anti-torture mechanisms pointed out on the occasion of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, healthcare professionals have essential roles to play in preventing and documenting torture, as well as rehabilitating its victims.

I am pleased to see their roles well-reflected in the revised version of the Istanbul Protocol.

I have no doubt that the improvements to the Protocol will strengthen the capacity of professionals to undertake meaningful investigations that can contribute to ultimately ensuring accountability.

I salute the work of medical professionals and human rights defenders around the world who often risk their lives to undertake this invaluable work. I invite States to make the Istanbul Protocol an essential part of training for all relevant public officials and medical professionals.

And finally, I urge those States that have not yet ratified the Convention against Torture and its Optional Protocol to do so as a matter of priority; as well as other relevant treaties that prohibit torture and ill-treatment. You now have an updated and immensely practical tool to help you give full effect to these instruments.

Many of you here today are working tirelessly to ensure that the international community upholds its commitment to prohibit torture, without exception. As we honour and remember torture victims, let us all dedicate our efforts to their right to obtain reparations, including compensation, rehabilitation, and a guarantee that it will never happen again.

Thank you.

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