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Torture as a weapon of war must cease, rights experts demand


Today, more than 100 armed conflicts are raging worldwide, devastating communities, winding back development, and leading to grave violations of human rights. 

Ranging from severe beatings to sexual humiliation and rape, torture is widely used as a means of war. And often, torture involves the use of tools or instruments, mock executions, and forcing victims to watch family members also being tortured, said the UN human rights chief Volker Türk.

Torture happens in both official detention centres as well as secret sites, away from any scrutiny.

In a video address Mr. Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, recalled meeting a victim of torture whose harrowing story left an indelible mark: “It revealed the horror of what human beings are capable of inflicting on one another. He will carry that deep trauma for the rest of his life.”

Zero-tolerance to torture

Torture is a serious crime, unequivocally prohibited under international law, and never justified under any circumstances.

Under the UN Convention against Torture all States must investigate and prosecute allegations of torture, as well as cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. They are obligated to prevent torture through every possible means

“Yet in almost all cases, the people who ordered and commit the crime of torture escape justice”, said the OHCHR chief. 

The Committee against Torture, a body of 10 independent human rights experts that monitors implementation of the Convention, regularly reminds States of their obligations to educate and inform all military personnel, especially those charged with duties related to detention, about the prohibition.

“States must take a zero-tolerance approach in investigating and prosecuting acts of torture committed by their regular armed forces, and those forces under their effective control,” said Claude Heller, the Committee’s chair, “A vital first step in this is the explicit criminalization of torture at the domestic level.”

Help to the victims

The scale of torture is alarming, with hundreds of thousands of victims spanning prisoners of war, human rights activists, and innocent civilians who can be caught up in random sweeps. Such acts of brutality occur in thousands of locations across countries on every continent, the UN rights chief reminded. 

He said it was especially important to ensure that “torture – wherever it takes place – is documented, investigated, prosecuted and punished.” 

By establishing the facts and seeking accountability, much needed help can be extended to victims of torture.

“Every torture victim has a right to acknowledgement, justice and redress”, said Mr. Türk.

Over four decades ago, the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture was established to provide social assistance, medical care, psychological support, and to help victims secure justice and deter future acts of torture.

It works with civil society groups in more than 120 countries and has reached over one million survivors. Today, however, the demand for the Fund’s assistance is so high, that thousands of requests for aid have had to be turned down

“We need more funds to match rising demand,” said the rights chief in a tweet. 

Taking away torture tools

The High Commissioner said that another effective way of preventing future cases of torture away from the battlefield, was to go after the trade in instruments of torture.

“I am fully supportive of all efforts to limit trade in items that could be used for torture, including through a new international torture-free trade treaty”, he said. 

Special Rapporteurs and other independent rights experts who serve on commissions or panels, are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. They are mandated to monitor and report on specific thematic issues or country situations, are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work.

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