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Ratifying a Torture-Free World, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Nov

Of the many insight-filled side events this month at UN Headquarters, we were especially pleased to be present for a discussion on the Convention against Torture Initiative (CTI) launched in March by the governments of Chile, Denmark, Ghana, Indonesia and Morocco.

This eclectic group of governments, supported by the Association for the Prevention of Torture, has committed over a 10 year period to attain universal ratification of the UN Convention against Torture. Their commitment includes “identifying challenges and barriers to ratification” and “building a global platform” of diverse stakeholders.

This CTI event dovetailed effectively with other torture-related events taking place at UN Headquarters – focusing on issues such as medical forensics, solitary confinement, treatment of prisoners, and coerced ‘confessions’ — many of which included the presence of Juan Mendez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment and his colleagues with the Anti-Torture Initiative at Washington (DC) College of Law.

Along with colleagues worldwide, including and especially Paris-based FIACAT, Global Action sees significant promise in CTI.   Protection from torture is a ‘first generation’ rights issue in part because of its corrosive impact on the promotion and protection of other rights.   Torture undermines the fabric of community life, sowing suspicion of neighbors and their government officials, impeding free speech, and severely dampening enthusiasm for participation in political and cultural life.   Indeed, torture has the power to significantly unravel the social contract between citizens and governments, a ‘contract’ already fragile enough in an age of terror, climate upheavals, unchecked trafficking in weapons and persons, official corruption, mass atrocity violence and grave economic uncertainty.

With all due respect to the early stages of CTI development, we would like to offer a couple of reminders, hopefully helpful.

First, we note that the last laps of any long race are generally the most challenging.  In this regard, it is important to note that those states which have, to date, resisted ratification of the CAT (see have significant (if not often legitimate) reasons for resistance.  Ratification did not just ‘slip the mind’ of recalcitrant states.  Moving these states to full engagement with the CAT will take much conversation, negotiation, perhaps even a bit of horse trading and coercive prodding.   Achieving universal ratification of the CAT is no small matter under the best of global circumstances.  And these times are certainly not the best.

Second, it is imperative that we involve in this work as many willing and skillful hands as we can locate. The proposed ‘global platform’ must stage as large and diverse a group of stakeholders as it can handle. This of course includes many stakeholders without specific branding in the human rights area or access to centers of policy influence.  Torture is an issue that impacts development priorities, educational opportunities, the policy participation of women and marginalized groups, even fair access to water and other resources.   People who work on these related issues – or are directly impacted by their challenges – must also receive an invitation.

The key here is to ensure as much as possible that participation in this drive toward universal ratification is governed less by who has a professional interest and more by who has a personal stake.   From this perspective it is clear that the stakes are high for all of us, well beyond the domain of human rights experts and issue-specific advocates.  If CTI is to achieve its goal, and we all need for this to happen, the circle drawn to help identify and energize relevant stakeholders must be large and welcoming.