In line with its usual practice, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Commission) and its Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Africa (CPTA) join the international community on 26 June to observe the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. It is an opportunity to review the situation on the protection of persons against torture. For this edition of 2021, the Commission and the CPTA commend the sustained efforts of each African State and urge governments to strengthen national measures in order to meet their international commitments. This would indeed be consistent with the fact that 51 States are parties to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT).
As a reminder, 26 June is the anniversary date of entry into force of the UNCAT. The UNCAT is the key international legal instrument which guides and shapes national legislation and the work of international and sub-regional organisations in the prohibition of torture and in combating its devastating impact on victims. With regard to Africa, the UNCAT strengthens Article 5 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Article 1 of the UNCAT defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity”.
The CPTA also recognises efforts to conduct investigations into situations where acts of torture appear to have been committed. In this regard, it welcomes the monitoring efforts of numerous international and non-governmental organisations and the fact that some States have taken into account the reports and strong recommendations made by these institutions.
However, the CPTA notes that normative progress has stagnated in recent years. The onset of several crises – security and health in particular – has put on hold the fight against torture. Worse, the CPTA notes that in recent years, and even more so in recent months, acts of torture have been committed on the territories of States parties to the UNCAT.
As part of efforts to curb the Covid-19 pandemic, several States have adopted measures to protect their populations and prevent the spread of the virus. Enforcement of these measures by defence and security forces has resulted in the infliction of cruel, inhuman and degrading acts on individuals. On 26 June 2020, the Commission and the CPTA, in observing this International Day, noted and denounced these acts of torture and urged all stakeholders to cease or put an end to such acts. This year again, the Commission and the CPTA note that defence and security forces in some States still continue to commit acts of torture under the guise of anti-pandemic laws.
Moreover, the fight against terrorism in some countries provides an opportunity for the denial of human rights. Reports indicate that hundreds of people have been massacred and often dumped in mass graves during missions to neutralise members of armed groups. Inquiries and reports have documented the torture of dozens of civilians with the aim of compelling them to collaborate with non-State armed groups or State forces. These abuses have been ongoing since the onset of security crises in several States. However, acts of torture committed this year in connection with the fight against terrorism have increased and sometimes tend to be committed systematically.
Inquiries and reports on internal crises and crackdowns on demonstrations in some African States indicate that hundreds of people have been violently repressed and some have died. Investigations into these types of situations are rarely opened at the internal level to establish responsibility and punish the perpetrators of these abuses according to applicable international standards.
Acts in violation of the UNCAT are also observed in the prison environment. Acts of torture and poor conditions of detention, including prison overcrowding, failure to provide ill detainees with treatment and failure to respect the rights of detainees, were documented and presented to the CPTA.
Acts of torture based on discrimination were also noted. Individuals have been subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment because of their sexual orientation. Furthermore, some people have been subjected to torture because of their disability; some have had parts of their bodies removed. This is particularly the case for people with albinism.
The Commission and the CPTA call on States to refrain from using the health situation relating to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the security situation, specifically the fight against terrorism, as a pretext to commit acts of torture against individuals. In the same spirit, they call on States to repeal their general laws allowing for arbitrary arrests, searches and detentions, contrary to international and regional norms. On the other hand, the Commission and the CPTA urge States to adopt specific and clear laws criminalising torture, and to ensure strict compliance with their international commitments on human rights protection. Evidently, these actions should ensure that victims are central to any system aimed at combating torture. Reparation and rehabilitation for victims are inextricable from the definitive restoration of their dignity, which has been violated at its core by the brutal intrusion that acts of torture constitute.
The Commission and the CPTA remain steadfastly committed to their mission of combating torture and reiterate their full support to the victims. It is with this in mind that Resolution ACHPR/Res.472 (LXVII) 2020 on the prohibition of the use, production, export and trade of tools used for torture was adopted at the 67th Ordinary Session held virtually from 13 November to 3 December 2020. It is also consistent with the decision of the CPTA to maintain, in 2021, its theme for the year 2020, namely “The prohibition of the use, production and trade of equipment or substances designed to inflict torture or other ill-treatment”, because the fight against torture requires a holistic approach, which necessarily involves the identification and dismantling, destruction or decommissioning of equipment and tools used in the perpetration of acts of torture.