Eric Sottas: Appraisal of OMCT's activities over 25 years and goals of the campaign
Madam Mayor of Geneva,
Madam Dreyfuss, former Federal Councillor,
Mr. Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In June 1985, as the previous speakers recalled, a group of friends who for months had been thinking about the way in which they could fight torture most effectively, decided to formalise their action by creating the embryo of a secretariat to service a network of NGOs that initially numbered fewer than fifty.
This initiative occurred in the contradictory context of the 1980s, a decade began with a resurgence of tensions between the two Superpowers leading the bipolar world which emerged from the Second World War and which would end with the disappearance of the Soviet empire.
This shortened version of events should not obscure either the violence of the conflicts or the importance of the changes that took place during these ten years, during which the question of human rights became a national as well as an international political pawn.
From the time of his election in 1977, President Jimmy Carter distanced himself from the international policy of his predecessor. While Nixon encouraged, supported, indeed favoured the emergence on the Latin American subcontinent of dictatorships that massively violated human rights in the name of national security and the fight against communism, Jimmy Carter on the other hand reaffirmed the pre-eminence of the law, both within nations and in international relations. Respectful of the rights of peoples, he did not hesitate, despite the patent ideological differences, to recognize in 1979 the victory of the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua and to support the new regime.
This policy of openness was to have contradictory effects. The Soviet Union, under Brezhnev, showed itself to be incapable of seizing the chance for a new international order and in 1979 invaded Afghanistan in an effort to keep its empire intact. We had to wait for the arrival of Yuri Andropov in 1982 and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 to see, little by little, the emergence of a policy of transparency (glasnost) and calling for restructuring (perestroika).
At the same time, dictatorships came to an end in Argentina (1983), Uruguay (1985) and Brazil (1985).
These considerable changes should not make us lose sight of other dramatic upheavals. The Iranian revolution of 1979 introduced a new paradigm. Rejecting the East-West bipolarisation, Iran presented itself to the UN in December 1984 as the centre of a new revolution: that of the Islamic world. In spite of the reaction of Muslim-majority States that did not see themselves in the Khomeini regime’s instrumentalisation of Islam, Tehran proclaimed a policy of extending the revolution, calling into question the traditional conception of international law and advocating methods of struggle that were in flagrant contradiction to human rights and humanitarian law.
In the United States, Ronald Reagan, after a virulent campaign denouncing the weakness of the policy of the Carter administration vis-à-vis the country’s enemies and attacking his naivety concerning the proposal for an international society regulated by the principles of the rule of law and in particular the human rights treaties, advocated a system of “low intensity” war to check the threats to the American model. Cruel conflicts shook Latin America, where paramilitaries – like the Contras in Nicaragua and the so-called self-defence movements in Colombia – took the place of the regular army and targeted the civilian population, which they reduced to silence through terror.
Asia and Africa also knew bloody convulsions and developments which would lead, for example, South Africa at the very beginning of the 1990s to emerge from the apartheid regime, avoiding the bloodbath that everyone feared.
In this context of striking contrasts, the United Nations appears more than ever as the entity the most able to bring to the international community the normative framework that can control excesses and embody hope.
With respect to the fight against torture, two dates stand out:
- December 1984, the United Nations General Assembly adopts the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment;
- May 1985, the Commission on Human Rights creates the post of Special Rapporteur on the question of torture.
The Convention represents considerable progress:
- In fact, it provides a minimal definition of torture that is accepted by everyone;
- It enshrines such basic principles as non-refoulement of persons to a country where they are at risk of torture and the prohibition of using confessions extracted under torture or by ill-treatment against an accused person;
- It requires States parties to adopt legislative measures criminalising torture and punishing the perpetrators, notably by the mechanism of universal jurisdiction, the State detaining a person suspected of having committed an act of torture being obligated either to bring the suspect to trial or to extradict him/her;
- Finally, this convention provided for a committee of independent experts charged with examining periodically the manner in which the States parties adhered – or not – to their obligations under the Convention.
The Special Rapporteur on the question of torture has competence in all the States Members of the United Nations. He has the task of dealing with the denunciations wherever they originate, to carry out visits “in situ” and to conduct research as he deems necessary to the fight against torture.
These new international instruments, the growing recognition of the authority of human rights and the violence of conflicts, including social conflicts, lead a growing number of NGOs to the United Nations, often, however, without either knowing or understanding the way it functions or the procedures to follow.
It is therefore logical that since its founding OMCT would first direct its actions towards responding to these needs. The fight against torture can become effective only once the NGOs in the field have appropriated these new instruments and used the mechanisms. In addition, it is necessary also to put at the service of the NGOs the still-little-known tool of the internet, as much for the storage of sensitive information as for its almost instantaneous dissemination. The first task that we set ourselves was to shorten the time between the discovery of a violation and its communication to the body most likely to stop it, to compensate the victims and to avoid its repetition, notably by punishing the perpetrator.
We were also convinced early on that torture can be eradicated only by identifying and attacking the causes. These are less likely to be found in the sadistic tendencies of the perpetrators than in the profoundly unjust social, cultural or economic situations that generate both State and para-State violence.
The activities conducted in close collaboration with our field partners also made us aware of the lack of attention paid to certain categories of victim, women and children in particular, because of both social or cultural marginalisation and a too-restrictive reading of the duties incumbent upon the State. The legal definition of torture does presuppose the involvement of the State but, as we have shown in the judicial or quasi-judicial bodies, that does not necessarily mean that a State agent must be the direct perpetrator of the violence. The fact that he consents to it, or that he does not take measures to avoid or end it, engages his responsibility and that of the State.
We have also developed programmes to protect human rights defenders, out of a sense of group solidarity but because they are the communications link between the victims and the bodies that can protect them.
In the course of these 25 years, our urgent interventions have numbered in the tens of thousands and our medical, social or legal assistance, reports, field missions, prison visits, investigations, legal opinions and amicus curiae briefs in the hundreds.
Our partners are often astonished at the small number of persons who, in the Secretariat, take charge of the various programmes that I have just mentioned.
This is possible for two reasons.
Our Network comprises, as has been noted, 297 affiliated organisations in 97 countries. As in any action chain, some are more active than others. But these field partners carry out every day remarkably courageous and professional work. Many take considerable risks, as we describe in the report that we publish annually on human rights defenders. Slanders, threats, arbitrary detentions, torture and assassinations are unfortunately the lot of a great number of them.
It is not possible to pay tribute to each of them, but I would like to mention the names of two people who had were members of the managerial bodies of our organisation: Eduardo Umaña Mendoza, member of our Executive Council, assassinated several years ago in Colombia, and Floribert Chebeya of the RDC, member of our General Assembly, disappeared and found murdered several days ago, and who will be buried on Saturday.
While the Network provides the information and sometimes contributes to the missions and the investigations, the work on the denunciations, the legal analyses and the follow-up of cases is done by a remarkable team, whose professionalism and commitment too often leads more than one of its members to lose count of their hours and to sacrifice numerous week-ends.
I would like to thank them for everything that they accomplish every day. I will not mention all their names, but now as we celebrate this twenty-fifth anniversary, I would like to recall the warm memories we have of those who are gone: Henrik Zielinski, Kitty Leibovitch, Kifle Aria and Vladana Vasiljevic.
Thanks to this solidly committed group, we have been able to save lives, and for us that is priceless.
While we have recorded indisputable successes, we must also admit, as did our President, Yves Berthelot, that for several years there has been a serious trend towards the erosion of the absolute prohibition of torture and ill-treatment.
In the guise of security, cultural traditions or the imperatives of development, more and more States are reinterpreting the Convention and, while claiming to respect it, are weakening or distorting some of its articles.
Although the Convention prohibits refoulement to a country where the risk of torture exists, many governments send back asylum-seekers solely on the basis of a promise on the part of the authorities of the country concerned not to mistreat them, as if one could give the least credence to leaders who, out of weakness or complicity, tolerate torture in their countries.
Under the rule of law confessions obtained under torture are not admitted as evidence in court, but interrogations conducted outside our borders under revolting conditions, sometimes by rogatory letter, provide material that is frequently added to the databases of the security services of countries that pride themselves on their respect for the law. This information allows those services to undertake their “own” investigations later, obscuring the fact that they are made possible only because of information obtained through torture.
The legal window-dressing used to cover up these methods tends, alas sometimes successfully, to lend them legitimacy in the eyes of a too-credible public.
The campaign that we are launching today seeks, modestly, to turn back this deviation. We are grateful for the support of prominent national and international personalities. We are convinced that their prestige and the recognition they enjoy among the public will encourage reflection, which is the first step towards a reaction that is more imperative now than ever.