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Volume 13 Number 1
New Delhi, Spring 2006

Combating Torture and Ill-Treatment throughout the Commonwealth

Philippe Trembley
OPCAT Campaign Coordinator, Association for the Prevention of Torture (Geneva)

In recent years, human rights activists throughout the Commonwealth and beyond have become more vocal on the growing recourse to torture in the so-called “War against Terror”, including by democratic regimes. The matter is so serious that civil society organisations must now join forces and unite behind a common campaign against torture and other forms of ill-treatment.

On 10 December 2005, Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon issued a press release in which he strongly condemned the use of torture, a practice he calls “contrary to everything the Commonwealth stands for”. On that occasion, he recalled that Member States have long shared a common commitment to combat torture, and that the origin of this firm stand can be found in the 1971 Singapore Declaration and the 1991 Harare Declaration.

This was only one, among various occasions, when the Secretary General has rung the alarm bell and made clear his intention to see Commonwealth institutions play a more active role in the field of torture prevention, notably through the promotion of the two International Covenants on Human Rights (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights - ICCPR, and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - ICESCR) which have still not been ratified by 18 of the 53 Member States. This call for action is a clear reminder that “one of the strategic objectives of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s human rights programme is to assist governments to ratify international instruments”.1 Those NGO representatives who took part in the November 2005 Commonwealth Human Rights Forum in Malta echoed the Secretary General by urging States to “ratify and domesticate core human rights treaties”.

Although universal adhesion to the two Covenants ought to remain a top priority, the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) and its Optional Protocol (OPCAT) should be included in any ratification campaign. The OPCAT’s prevention focus makes it an ideal instrument for States genuinely willing to come to grips with practices contrary to the UNCAT, that may still be resorted to by their security forces.

The OPCAT was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 18 December 2002 after many years of hard-fought negotiations. Its raison d’ętre is to prevent torture and ill-treatment through the establishment of a system of regular and unannounced visits to places of detention carried out by independent international and national bodies. It is hoped that this very practical structure will have a deterrent effect, enable experts to examine first hand the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty, and make sound recommendations on the basis of their observations, thus building a relationship with relevant authorities based on mutual trust and a common desire to make sure conditions of detention are consistent with human dignity. Furthermore, the OPCAT does not require that States prepare additional reports to international bodies.

Promoting transparency in public institutions is a concept not unknown to the realm of the Commonwealth, as shown by the recent efforts made by CHRI and like-minded partners to convince State actors that police forces ought to be held responsible for their deeds.2 At the APT, we believe this quest for accountability should be extended to encompass all entities which have control over persons deprived of their liberty, including psychiatric hospitals and migrants detention centres.

The global campaign for the OPCAT, supported by the CINAT3, has gained momentum and is now in full swing, thanks to the cooperation of like-minded partners such as the Copenhagen-based Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT;, regional bodies such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights, as well as some governments which have made torture prevention a key issue of their human rights policy (eg. Denmark, Switzerland and the UK). With now 16 ratifications of the 20 required for the Optional Protocol to enter into force, it is likely that we will see this ambitious prevention scheme come into being in 2006.

Although the OPCAT campaign has made substantial progress, most notably in Latin America, much remains to be done in the Commonwealth ambit, both to raise awareness among the human rights NGO community on anti-torture legal instruments and to devise campaign strategies to allow for those to be ratified and duly implemented at the domestic level.

Mr. Avuyi cites a lack of professional training and re-orientation as a root cause for the misapplication of force by the Ghana Police Service. It continues to operate in a para-military culture that was prevalent during the many years of military rule prior to democracy’s rebirth in 1992, and has not adapted to the new constitutional reality. When the Office of the Inspector General of Police was questioned about the training of new recruits, it was mentioned that they receive 9 months of training at the Police Training School, but they would not say how much of that is actually dedicated to the use-of-force and firearms.

As it stands, the overall ratification record of the Commonwealth is far from impressive. While 18 countries still have not ratified the ICCPR, 24 are not party to the UNCAT, including almost all Caribbean and South Pacific Island States. As for the OPCAT, the United Kingdom, Malta and Mauritius are the only Member States that have ratified it so far.4 However, CHRI, for its part, seems willing to advocate more actively for the UNCAT and its Optional Protocol. In the foreword she posted on the PoliceWatch website (, CHRI’s Director, Ms Maja Daruwala, says the following:

“In 2006, let’s strengthen our resolve against torture. An important step in this direction would be to move governments to become parties to the Convention Against Torture and its Optional Protocol. Governments owe a responsibility to ensure that those indulging in cruel, inhuman or degrading practices never go unpunished.”

National anti-torture campaigns have been launched in many African countries such as South Africa and Uganda, and the APT plans to visit Ghana and Kenya in 2006 to assist national partners in their lobbying work. Given the apparent readiness of the Commonwealth Secretary General and its Human Rights Unit to be more active in the field of treaty ratification advocacy and the growing desire of civil society organisations to prioritise a more robust and coordinated response to the torture apologists, there remains the hope that the various statements and declarations calling for universal rejection of torture and ill-treatment will soon translate into concrete action and lead to real steps in effective prevention.

For more information on APT and the campaign in favor of the OPCAT, please consult:

CHRI Newsletter, Spring 2006

Editors: Mary Rendell & Clare Doube , CHRI;
Print: Chenthil Paramasivam ,
Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

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The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth.