The Covid-19 pandemic has heavily impacted the work of the United Nations treaty bodies, whose independent experts monitor how States implement the treaties that protect our most essential common rights: to be free from torture, to freedom of expression and assembly, the rights of children or of women, and many more.
Nearly all treaty body sessions scheduled for 2020 were postponed, cancelled or scaled down. This included the sessions of the UN Committee against Torture (CAT), whose members could not meet in Geneva and decided to suspend parts of their work in 2020.
At the same time, torture and ill-treatment were on the rise against the backdrop of the collapse of protection systems due to Covid-19. Courts of law and national anti-torture bodies were often only partly operational, while human rights groups were facing obstruction in monitoring torture cases. There was an even further deterioration in the already low levels of compliance by States with the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the low levels of accountability for torture. This disproportionately affected vulnerable groups such as women, children, migrants, refugees, the homeless, the poor and the marginalised.
In a July address to a virtual meeting of the CAT, the OMCT stressed the need for the anti-torture experts’ leadership as torture and ill-treatment were spreading, including in detention, as police brutality was on the rise when enforcing curfews or distancing rules, and as domestic violence was festering during lockdowns.
While the CAT did not review any country in 2020, some parts of the reporting cycle continued. We worked with our partners to bring national realities to the experts by submitting eight reports and continued following up the implementation of the Concluding Observations previously adopted by the CAT on several countries.
A joint response by human rights groups
In October, the OMCT and TB-Net, a platform composed of several human rights groups including the OMCT, spearheaded a joint letter, signed by 523 civil society organisations worldwide, calling upon the UN Human Rights treaty bodies and the Human Rights treaties branch of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to continue discharging all their functions, as required by their mandates.
While the UN Human Rights treaty body system was hardly operational in 2020, this was also the year of the UN treaty body review. This inter-governmental process aims to assess further actions to ensure the system runs effectively. As we witnessed a further rollback on human rights and an undermining of the multilateral human rights system, the OMCT with other civil society organisations stepped up their collective response to protect and further strengthen the UN Human Rights treaty body system by submitting, in July, two major joint contributions:
NGO submission with 27 other civil society organisations
Kenya: “Our voices were not heard at the time of our greatest need”
Kenya was due to be reviewed by the CAT in 2020 and then in 2021. Now the country review has been rescheduled to 2022. This testimony from our members at the Kenyan section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ Kenya) highlights the impacts of such postponements on the protection of the most vulnerable.
As the numbers of Covid-19 infections were on the rise, the response from the Kenyan authorities led to an increase of torture and other ill-treatment across the country.
We have observed:
- Increased police brutality led to the loss of life, including of children, and enforced disappearances. By July 2020, 157 people had been killed by the police or reported missing, compared to 144 for the whole of 2019. Most of them were young men living in informal settlements;
- A 35.8% increase in the number of cases of sexual and gender-based violence filed since the beginning of the pandemic, as reported by the Chief Justice of the Republic of Kenya already on 2 April 2020;
- A lack of prioritization of access to adequate health care and services for those most at risk and most vulnerable. This included people deprived of liberty, large numbers of people living in highly congested, poor neighbourhoods or camps for refugees, migrants, and internally displaced people.
At the same time, the voices of the victims and civil society remained largely unheard at both the national and international levels due to the sanitary measures, including travel restrictions. As a result, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) twice rescheduled Kenya’s review. This is a real problem as the accountability gap is widening at the expense of Kenya’s population. Therefore, at this specific moment in time, we in Kenya need more than ever the leadership of the UNCAT to:
- Keep the Kenyan State in check by periodically sending advisories or guidelines that would address human rights violations that amount to torture, cruel and degrading treatment;
- Remind that the use of terms such as “necessity,” “national emergency,” or “public order” cannot be invoked as a justification of torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment;
- Prioritize the voice of victims and hold States accountable;
- Keep communication channels with civil society wide open, as their space to defend rights at the national level is increasingly undermined.