Torture is one of the most abhorrent crimes a human being can commit towards another.
The effects go beyond the appalling physical and psychological harm inflicted on victims. The sense of indignity and injustice that torture and other ill-treatment create can destroy trust in institutions, radicalise individuals, and harm the whole community in many ways.
Despite that, torture goes unpunished most of the time. For example, out of 8,335 torture investigations opened by a specialised Prosecutor’s office in Mexico, only 17 led to court action. In the Philippines, there was a sentencing in just one case of extrajudicial killing by security forces, out of at the very least 8,663. And the list goes on.
This is because torture permeates institutions in many parts of the world: police stations, prisons, and even justice systems that too often rely on confessions. Corruption is one factor behind entrenched torture and ill-treatment. Inequality is another: more often than not, victims of torture are the poor and the marginalised, such as members of religious or ethnic minorities. Authoritarian governments rely on torture to instill fear and quench any political opposition or mere dissent. In times of war, torture spreads like cancer. Syria is one recent case in point, with both the State and non-State armed groups using torture and other forms of ill-treatment on an industrial scale.
Impunity is the first reason explaining why torture is so prevalent.
Among the many reasons why torture is so prevalent, impunity comes first. When hardly anyone gets punished for a crime, it is a green light for that crime to continue unabated and thus damage both individuals and sometimes whole societies. Moreover, as victims are often the most vulnerable members of society, their chances of getting justice are almost non-existent.
Litigating cases of torture in courts of law or with United Nations dedicated bodies is fundamental. First, victims also need reparation and the punishment of the guilty to overcome their suffering. For society at large, litigation can trigger reforms that increase the prevention of torture and reinforce the rule of law. Doing justice to victims is also a legal obligation: Article 14 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment requires States to ensure that victims obtain “redress and enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation, including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible.”
However, litigation remains an underused tool as civil society organisations find it difficult to document and litigate torture cases for various reasons.
This is why the OMCT launched in 2019 three Litigators’ Groups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, connecting over 45 of its Network members and partners to develop innovative strategies and bring emblematic cases to national and/or regional courts.
In the same vein, OMCT’s Tunisia office is acting as a civil party in seven emblematic cases of torture that have been in front of specialised criminal courts since May 2018 and are part of the transitional justice process on serious human rights violations perpetrated between 1956 and 2013.
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