Statement of Manfred Nowak, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture to the 40th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Banjul



15 November 2006

Excellency Madam Chairperson, Honourable Members of the Commission, Distinguished Representatives of Members States of the African Union, NGOs and National Human Rights Institutions,

I express my gratitude to the African Union for having invited me to participate. It is a great honour and pleasure for me to attend the 40th session of the African Commission and to address you today.

As was pointed out by various speakers during the opening ceremony, 25 years after the adoption of the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights and 20 years after its entry into force, we are at a crucial point in the development of human rights in Africa and its pre-eminent monitoring body, the African Commission. As Kofi Annan has stressed in his thought provoking report “In Larger Freedom”, “we will not enjoy development without security, we will not enjoy security without development, and we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights.” There is no other region in the world where the wisdom of this statement has more relevance than Africa. Poverty, the very negation of development, is more prevalent in Africa than elsewhere, and constitutes, in my opinion, the most serious and widespread violation of all human rights. Africa is also witnessing a particularly high degree of violence and armed conflicts, which have their roots in poverty and other human rights violations, such as discrimination against ethnic and religious groups. In turn, these lead to immense human suffering and widespread human rights violations, including systematic killings, torture, disappearances and displacement. The Millennium Development Goals of September 2000 provided a powerful agenda for reducing poverty and promoting essential human rights, such as universal primary education, the right to primary healthcare and ensuring gender equality. However, very little has been achieved in the meantime to accomplish the ambitious goals set for 2015. On the contrary, much of the global resources necessary for achieving them have been diverted to security-dominated counter-terrorism strategies.

Global human rights problems can be addressed effectively only by concerted and well-coordinated cooperation between the United Nations and regional organizations, such as the African Union, and by division of labour between Governments, civil society and independent expert bodies, such as the African Commission. It is the responsibility of NGOs and human rights defenders to openly address human rights problems, raise awareness and lobby Governments to take action. The responsibility of independent human rights monitoring bodies is to promote human rights, to objectively assess the human rights situation in countries within their respective mandates, to address individual complaints and to remind Governments of their obligations. Ultimately, the main “responsibility to protect” its own people and others against serious human rights violations remains with Governments.

African States have a good record of ratifying international and regional human rights treaties with the intention of implementing them in their domestic law and practice. But, as in other regions of the world, commitments and pledges are not always followed by resolute action, like legislative and political measures as well as allocation of sufficient resources to implement them.

Let me elaborate on these general thoughts by referring to my own mandate, the prohibition and prevention of torture. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur has been in existence for over twenty years, first established by the UN Commission on Human Rights, and since assumed by the UN Human Rights Council. On the mandate now for almost two years, my main activities are to address individual complaints of torture and ill-treatment world-wide, to undertake fact-finding visits, to examine thematic issues relating to torture, such as the compatibility of corporal punishment with international standards, and to advocate the international standards relating to the prohibition and prevention of torture.

The record of African States that have ratified international human rights treaties related to torture has been impressive. All AU member States are parties to the African Charter which in Article 5 prohibits, without any exception, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment. In addition, of the 53 States in Africa, 94% have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and 72% have ratified the UN Convention against Torture. And there is virtual universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Furthermore, five out of the 29 States parties to the recent Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture concerning the establishment of independent national visiting mechanisms for places of detention, are African (Benin, Lesotho, Mali, Mauritius and Senegal).

Yet, as I stated recently at the UN General Assembly, since assuming the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, I am astonished at the low-level of awareness of the seriousness and gravity of torture by politicians and law enforcement officials. This is illustrated by insufficient provisions to prohibit and prevent torture with penalties commensurate with the gravity of the violation. There remains a significant deficit in the commitment and cooperation by States to tackle the problem of torture.

I note that almost 60% of the African States parties to the CAT have not submitted their initial report to the Committee against Torture on their efforts to implement their obligations. Constitutional and legislative provisions prohibiting torture, as well as the ratification of treaties, are important first steps. But they are not automatically efficacious by themselves. States must demonstrate their commitment to implement these obligations by ensuring effective investigations and prosecutions of allegations of torture, supported by penalties commensurate with the gravity of torture, and appropriate compensation and rehabilitation for victims. In addition, they must submit to regular and independent monitoring of their efforts.
Moreover, States must also take the necessary steps to establish universal jurisdiction, and I am encouraged by the recent decision of the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government to call upon Senegal to fully comply with its obligations to initiate criminal proceedings against Hissène Habré in compliance with the respective decision of the UN Committee against Torture.

In relation to my mandate, in 2005 I had sought clarifications and actions on allegations of torture that I had submitted to about 20 African States, but the rate of response has been very low. In addition, out of ten countries in Africa that I have sought invitations for fact-finding missions (Algeria, Côte D’Ivoire, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya, Nigeria, Togo and Zimbabwe), some of which are long-standing, only three countries, namely Côte D’Ivoire, Nigeria and Togo, have responded positively. These States must be commended for submitting themselves to independent international scrutiny for the common aim of eradicating the practice of torture and ill-treatment. I will visit Nigeria and Togo during the first half of 2007, and negotiations with Cote D’Ivoire and Zimbabwe have started.

My mandate as the Special Rapporteur is one of the mechanisms established by the United Nations to eradicate torture. With the limited means at my disposal and a mandate which covers the globe, I cannot realistically do this on my own. Governments are my primary partners. And apart from intergovernmental organizations, I rely upon civil society and regional organizations, those of who are the experts closest to the issues and who can often address them with greater speed and on a more systematic basis.

I have already forged partnerships for cooperation and collaboration with the human rights institutions of the European Union, Council of Europe, the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Organization of American States. It is for this reason I am here.

The issue of torture in Africa and the plight of its victims deserve greater attention and prominence then they have received thus far. I have noted with satisfaction recent efforts by the African Commission in this respect, above all the creation of a Special Rapporteur on Prisons and Conditions of Detention in Africa, the adoption of the Robben Island Guidelines for the Prohibition and Prevention of Torture, Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in Africa in 2002 and the establishment of its Follow-Up Committee.

I congratulate the respective Commissioners for their outstanding contributions to eradicating torture and am happy to offer my full cooperation, such as mutual assistance, exchange of information and possibly carrying out joint missions to African countries.

I would also like to take this opportunity to encourage Governments to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and offer my cooperation with Governments and the African Commission to promote the implementation of the OP by organizing workshops on the establishment of National Preventive Mechanisms with the purpose of carrying out unannounced visits to all places of detention and speaking in private with detainees. After all, prevention is better than cure, and I am deeply convinced that truly independent and well-resourced domestic commissions that regularly inspect prisons, police lock-ups, pre-trial and other detention facilities are the best mechanisms to eradicate torture.

I reiterate my sincere commitment to work together with the African Union and the Commission towards greater promotion and protection of human rights.

Thank you for your attention.