“The international community is facing one of the most critical periods in recent decades”

Claude Heller, who has been a member of the United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT) since 2016, was re-elected as its Chair in April 2022 for the next two years. In an interview with the OMCT, the former Ambassador for Mexico to the United Nations and the Security Council explains the importance of defending our multilateral human rights system as he observes how the most vulnerable are at increased risk of torture.

Over the last two years, the Covid-19 pandemic posed unprecedented challenges to the Committee against Torture, as well as to other international bodies, adversely impacting their functioning. As we emerge from the pandemic, what is the greatest challenge for the Committee?

The Covid-19 pandemic had a huge impact on the international system and the functioning of the wide range of multilateral institutions, bodies and processes.

The biggest challenge for the Committee against Torture (CAT) is recovering from the backlog due to the circumstances where for almost two years during the pandemic it was unable to examine country periodic reports, as scheduled under Article 19 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the Convention). It was unable to carry out its role of protection under Article 22 of the Convention, which gives the CAT the competence to consider and rule on individual communications from individuals claiming to be victims of a violation by a State Party that has recognised its jurisdiction. It was also unable to implement the confidential procedure under Article 20 of the Convention to examine allegations by civil society organisations concerning the systematic practice of torture in certain State Parties.

After this period of paralysis for international monitoring and accountability mechanisms, what is the Committee’s assessment of the current global trends, advancements or obstacles in the fight to eradicate torture?

Following the temporary suspension of international monitoring and accountability, the CAT is concerned about torture persisting in a variety of contexts, including in conflict zones, authoritarian States and States having difficulty implementing the provisions of the Convention. Excessive use of force is a constant in diverse settings and has increased against the backdrop of restrictive measures against the pandemic. There is an urgent need to intensify action to eradicate torture and to persuade societies of the importance of adopting public policies and effective measures to that end.

The treaty body system is in a critical situation given the lack of human and financial resources

In your role as chairperson, what are your key priorities and areas of interest for the coming two years?

As Chair of the CAT, I will continue to seek to strengthen constructive dialogue with States, as we have noted with concern the lack of cooperation in the case of some countries whose authorities ignore the recommendations made by the CAT and, concerning individual complaints, not only fail to respond but also retaliate against victims and their relatives.

We are trying to make the CAT more visible by bringing to public attention such flagrant cases as that of Burundi, which is failing to comply in the least with its treaty obligations and where the grave violation of human rights requires international attention. We will do the same with other States that fail to comply with the CAT’s decisions on individual complaints. We have decided to increase our cooperation with the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT) on several issues. For example, we decided to express our grave concern about the situation of indiscriminate violence in Ecuador's prisons, stating our willingness to cooperate with the State Party to the best of our ability.

The Convention against Torture now has 173 State Parties, which means more work for a committee with just 10 members and for the Secretariat. I am aware that the treaty body system is in a critical situation given the lack of human and financial resources. We are therefore committed to pushing for reform to address the current shortcomings and the existing backlog in the examination of reports and individual communications. It is essential to have greater support from States, who as sovereign signatories of the Convention are obligated to comply with its provisions, and from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

How important is the role of civil society organisations (CSOs) for the work of the Committee? Do you have any recommendations for CSOs in terms of engaging impactfully with the Committee?

The role of CSOs is particularly relevant to the work of the Committee. Their participation in closed meetings, alternative reports, and personal exchanges enrich the CAT’s knowledge of the very diverse situations of the States it is examining. In my view, CSOs could play a more active role in following up on the implementation of the recommendations made by the CAT in its Concluding Observations arising from the examination of the reports of States Parties to the Convention.

Political crises in several countries have increased the risk of torture and ill-treatment of the most vulnerable

The war in Ukraine is causing grave human rights violations, including acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in the territories under Russian control. Reports of women raped by Russian soldiers are piling up. We have witnessed how recent conflicts and crises around the world have increased the risk of torture and other ill-treatment against groups that are particularly vulnerable to torture, such as people deprived of liberty, women, children and indigenous peoples. How will the Committee enhance the protection of these groups?

The international community is facing one of the most critical periods in recent decades by virtue of the frequent violation of international law and international humanitarian law. The abuse of the veto by permanent members, including in wars involving them, has led to the paralysis of the Security Council, creating a crisis of confidence and credibility with respect to UN action. The multilateral system is increasingly obsolete and unresponsive to the needs of the present. The war in Ukraine adds to a long list in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, as well as internal political crises in several countries that have increased the risk of torture and ill-treatment of the most vulnerable categories, such as individuals deprived of their liberty, migrants, asylum seekers, indigenous peoples, women and children.

The CAT needs to be more proactive in drawing attention to these trends in the various actions related to its mandate. But it is part of a wider system and must coordinate with other human rights actors to be more effective. The issue of torture is addressed by the CAT, the SPT, the Special Rapporteur Against Torture and the Voluntary Fund for the Care of Victims of Torture. But the CAT is also a relevant source of information for the States to act in the main UN bodies and subsidiary bodies, such as the Human Rights Council. Improved coordination between the different entities operating in the system will be indispensable to achieving greater effectiveness.

Our multilateral institutions are increasingly under attack, a trend fuelled by surging populism and authoritarianism. How are we to tackle this challenge, which is severely threatening the protection of human rights and the UN human rights mechanisms, including the Committee against Torture?

The current situation calls for increased defence of multilateralism. Growing populism and authoritarianism, which are sometimes legitimised in democratic processes, result in less attachment and commitment to the international obligations that States have assumed in a variety of legal instruments of universal and regional scope. The risks of backsliding require States to strengthen human rights protection mechanisms. In the specific case of the CAT, progress needs to be made towards universalisation of the Convention and ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) by a greater number of States, since it addresses the key issue of torture prevention.