Urgent Interventions

Human Rights Day: Seizing a historic opportunity to end torture in the Middle East and North Africa - Ten steps against torture


Seizing a historic opportunityto end torture in the Middle East and North Africa

Ten steps against torture

Geneva, 10 December 2011. On the occasion of the UN Human Rights Day, the World Organisationagainst Torture (OMCT) and fourteen partner organisations from eight countries inthe Middle East and North Africa (seebelow) jointly call on all governments of the region to make the absoluteprohibition of torture and ill-treatment a reality. To this end, OMCT and itspartner organisations have set forth a “10 Steps” agenda outlined below.

The year 2011 has been marked by thecall for freedom and justice in the Middle East and North Africa. The wave of popular andpeaceful protests sought to overcome repressive regimes in the regioncharacterized by a widespread practice of torture and ill-treatment committedwith impunity and deeply entrenched in a system of emergency and special laws.

“This is animportant juncture in time with a historic opportunity to bring endemic andsystemic practices of torture and ill-treatment in the region finally to anend”, said the OMCT and its fourteen partner organisations. “It is thus vitalto ensure that the fight against torture and impunity becomes centre stage in the reform agendaof countries engaging into genuine transition. Equally, we must not spare anyeffort to end the use of torture and seek accountability for those responsiblefor the violent repression of dissent and opposition movements.”

While countries such as Tunisia have embarked in atransition process incidents of torture continue calling for lasting reformsthat ensure accountability and prevent torture in the future. Other governments of the region haveresponded to the nascent protests by initiating certain reforms, such as in Morocco. However,concerns over continuous practices of torture and ill-treatment, the lack ofsteps to fight impunity remain acute as highlighted last week by the UNCommittee Against Torture.

In others, such as Algeria, reforms have been proposed that wouldincrease restrictions on fundamental freedoms if they were adopted. The liftingof the state of emergency had no positive consequences as emergency provisions hadalready been incorporated into common law and new legislation fails to providevital legal safeguards in detention, and even allows for detention in secretplaces. Human rights violations, including torture, arbitrary detentions andenforced disappearances, continue to be committed by security forces with full impunity.Furthermore, the implementing decrees of the Charter on Peace and National Reconciliationremain in force providing blanket amnesties for State agents responsible for thecrimes committed during the conflict in the 90’s.

While Tunisia and Egypt were thefirst countries of the region to hold free elections (Constituent Assembly and parliamentary respectively) andnew opportunities are on the horizon thelegacy of human rights violations is a daunting challenge. Especially in Egyptthere has been little evidence of meaningful reforms to end the widespreadpractices of torture as the Supreme Councilof the Armed Forces (SCAF) continues to rely on emergency laws and to usemilitary courts to try civilians, to violently repress peaceful protests and totarget persons who are perceived to be critical to the authority in place. Thechanges in Libya have raised enormous expectations and hopes about anend to gross human rights violations known under the Ghaddafi regime. However,the revelations about torture and ill-treatment and arbitrary detention,including by the forces of the transitional authority, indicate the need forsustained efforts to prevent torture and to ensure accountability, and the fullcooperation with the International Criminal Court.

In other countries the situationremains dire, such as Yemen and Bahrain. In particular in Syria security forces continueto respond to protests with force and the use of torture. In its reportpublished on 28 November 2011, the IndependentInternational Commission of Inquiry on Syria expressed its graveconcern that crimes against humanity have been committed by Syrian military andsecurity forces since the repression against protests started in March 2011. Against the background of a defiant responseby Syriaso far, a stronger and unanimous response by the UN, including the SecurityCouncil, must now include a transfer to the International Criminal Court.

Theprotests in the Middle Eastand North Africamay herald the beginning of a new era in the region; there is, however, still along way to go before attaining freedom, justice and democracy. The experiencesin Lebanonfollowing the “spring revolution” in 2005 illustrate the need for lastingreforms against torture. Despite progress on individual freedoms, the countryis far from having eradicated torture in custody which remains widely practicesby the security forces.

On the occasion of the universal dayfor human rights and to seize the momentum created by the Arab Spring, OMCT andits fourteen partner organisationsin the region have set forth a “10 Steps” agenda against torture andaccordingly urge the governments of the region and other relevant actors tofully endorse them.


- Forum dignité pour les droitshumains – Morocco

- Observatoiremarocain des prisons (OMP) – Morocco

- Association marocaine des droitshumains (AMDH)- Morocco

- Organisationmarocaine des Droits de l'Homme (OMDH) - Morocco

- Collectif des Familles de Disparus enAlgérie (CFDA) – Algeria

- Conseil National pour la Liberté enTunisie (CNLT) – Tunisia

- Organisation Contre la Torture enTunisie (OCTT) – Tunisia

- Ligue Tunisienne pour la Défensedes Droits de l’Homme (LTDH) – Tunisia

- Human Rights Solidarity Libya– Libya

- LandCenterfor Human Rights (LCHR) – Egypt

- Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) – Egypt

- Lebanese center for human rights (LCHR) – Lebanon

- Syrian Human Rights OrganizationSawassyah – Syria

- BahrainCenterfor Human Rights – Bahrain

Ten steps against torture

1) Committing to an end to torture and ill-treatment

As the region is undergoingtransformation governments should express publicly their unequivocal commitmentto end any practice of torture and ill-treatment, to commit to fundamentalreforms strengthening accountability for acts of torture and preventing them inthe future. A clear message needs to be sent to all law enforcement agencies thatacts of torture and ill-treatment will no longer be tolerated. In light of the continuationof systematic and widespread use of torture in some countries of the region,such as Syria, governments, includingthose in the region, should use their influence within the internationalcommunity to ensure that those responsible are held accountable (cf. point10).

2) Investigating torture, bringing perpetrators to justice

Torture is a crime underinternational law which imposes clear and unambiguous obligations on states toconduct independent investigations and to bring those responsible to justice.However, despite recent reforms in some countries there has been limited evidenceof real accountability as of yet. We recall that the obligation to investigateacts of torture is an immediate one that needs to be conducted ex officio. Thisshould include also investigations of past abuses to ensure that the victims oftorture are provided with remedies and reparation and to ensure that the rightto truth is fully respected.

3) Ensuring the right of victims to remedy and reparation

The policies of torture have createdvictims which need to be recognized as such. While there is a slowly emergingacknowledgement of past practices of torture in certain countries, thereremains insufficient recognition of the need to ensure effective remedies andreparation to victims of torture. Any credible reform process, must be built onthe recognition of torture survivors as victims of a serious human rightsviolation, with full entitlement to effective remedies and reparation,including compensation and access to legal, social and medical rehabilitation.

4) Dismantling the apparatus of repression

Dismantling the apparatus ofrepression and ensuring that law enforcement agencies operate within and notoutside the rule of law needs to be a key priority. A plethora of nationalsecurity services has been operating under in-transparent mandates, ambiguouslegal basis and lines of command and within a framework that has assured dejure or de facto impunity for acts of torture. A clear and transparent legalframework, the separation between intelligence and law enforcement functionswith arrest and detention powers being the provenance of law enforcement, andeffective civilian and judicial oversight are thus core demands.

5) Demilitarizing the justice system and building a protectionsystem

Long-standing emergency and otherextraordinary laws have created repressive justice system with military,special or state security courts, often with jurisdiction over civilians andvalidating information obtained under torture. These special systems of justiceneed to be replaced by the jurisdiction of the ordinary civilian justicesystem. Moreover, any credible and viable reform process in the region shouldlead to the strengthening of judicial independence, the establishment ofeffective remedies, and in countries undergoing constitutional reforms, such asin Tunisia, may also consider theestablishment of constitutional human rights remedies such as constitutionalcourts.

6) Preventing torture and ending incommunicado detention

Torture and ill-treatment are stilla reality today in police custody in the countries of the region, including in‘ordinary’ criminal cases. Strengthening effective safeguards, such asimmediate access to lawyers from the moment of arrest and without need forspecial permission, as well as access to independent medical expertise andother safeguards against torture must be made a reality. Effective judicialoversight is equally required to ensure compliance with existing standards. Thesestandards are equally vital in national security and counter-terrorism cases toavoid abuse.

7) Establishing independent monitoring, control and oversight

Transparency is the key forprotecting human rights in custody. The ratification of the Optional Protocolto the UN Convention Against Torture should be an important first step and befollowed-up by the establishment of independent national visiting mechanisms,that are properly resourced and have access to any place of custody. Moreover,independent civil society access and monitoring of places of detention is an importantelement of democratization that should be embedded in reforms demilitarizing thepenitentiary system to ensure compliance with international standards andprinciples of democratic accountability.

8) Providing an enabling framework for human rights defendersand civil society

A shift away from a control to anenabling system for human rights organisations, civil society actors that allowcritical human rights reporting needs to be part of any reform process in theregion. This should ensure that laws on association and assembly are broughtfully in compliance with international standards. Authorities should alsoensure that any form of threat or harassment of human rights defenders isbrought to an end and that those responsible are held to account.

9) Making international law against torture key benchmark

The lesson learnt from transitionprocesses elsewhere is that international human rights standards should be madea direct part of domestic law and should be one of the benchmarks for thesuccess of the transition process. This requires the integration ofinternational standards into domestic law, ways to ensure compliance ofdomestic law with such standards, and may include the legal reception ofdecisions by universal or regional complaint mechanism. Where not yet done sostates should accede to the UN Convention Against Torture, its OptionalProtocol and accept the jurisdiction of the Committee Against Torture and theHuman Rights Committee to receive individual complaints.

10) Strengthening the resolve of the international community

In light of the continuous practicesof torture in parts of the region it is vital that there is a clear response bythe international community to address torture and impunity and to ensure legalaccountability. It is particularly important to ensure that in cases such asthe one in Syria jurisdiction istransferred to the ICC. We also call for the countries of the region to becomeactors for change that speak up for the protection of human rights and initiateand improve the universal human rights system and its mechanisms.

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