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States must take effective measures to prevent torture - UN chief

26 June 2011 – Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today exhorted States to take effective legislative, administrative and judicial measures to prevent torture, calling the practice a brutal attempt to destroy a victim's sense of dignity and sense of human worth that can never be justified.

“There are no exceptional circumstances whatsoever – whether a state of war, or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency or national security situation,” the Secretary-General said in a message to mark the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, being observed today.

“States' obligations also include the duty to provide effective and prompt redress, compensation and rehabilitation for all torture victims,” he said. “On the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, we honour the men and women who have suffered, enduring their ordeal with courage and inner strength. We mourn, too, those who did not survive.”

He pointed out that the recent entry into force of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances was a welcome addition to international human rights law, describing enforced disappearance as another manifestation of torture.

Mr. Ban urged all United Nations Member States to allow full and unhindered access by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to all places where people are deprived of liberty, and called on those countries that have not done so to ratify the Convention against Torture.

“At a time when the legitimate aspirations of people in many regions of the world for greater freedom, dignity and a better life are too often met with violence and repression, I urge States to respect the fundamental rights of all people.

“Torture and other forms of cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment and punishment, wherever they occur and whatever the circumstances, can never be justified.”

In a separate statement to mark the Day, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay warned that those who perpetrate torture will be brought to justice no matter how long it takes.

She gave the example of Argentina's former prison director, Abel Dupuy, who ordered the systematic torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of possibly hundreds of political prisoners during the country's military dictatorship in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Mr. Dupuy was last year convicted of his crimes and sentenced to life in prison, 30 years after he started ordering the torture of those arrested.

“Torture is illegal, and if carried out on a systematic basis can amount to a war crime or a crime against humanity. No circumstances, however exceptional, justify the use of torture against anyone for any reason. Neither a state of emergency nor conflict, neither the fight against terrorism nor the fight against crime excuses the use of torture,” said Ms. Pillay.

She lamented that despite the blanket ban on torture under international law, despotic governments and dysfunctional criminal justice systems perpetrated the crime every day.

“As we have seen very graphically in North Africa and the Middle East over the past few months, men, women and even children are tortured in detention simply for expressing their political views, in order to force confessions, or just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Ms. Pillay.

She said that those perpetrating torture and those who gave the orders did so with an expectation of impunity, but thanks to the courage and determination of victims and survivors, and the tireless efforts of human rights defenders, accountability is increasingly taking place and the perpetrators should no longer expect to get away with such heinous crimes.

“Prosecutions of the sort we are witnessing now, decades after the commission of the criminal act of torture, send a powerful message. The strengthening of international justice mechanisms, including the rapidly maturing International Criminal Court (ICC), means that the chances of torturers being snared one day, either on the national or international level, has greatly increased.”

The UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, meanwhile, said a funding shortfall has forced it to reduce support to many organizations providing psychological, medical and social assistance to thousands torture survivors throughout the world. Support to legal aid programmes, crucial to fight impunity and bringing perpetrators to justice, has also been affected.

“After 30 years of achievements in rebuilding lives of victims of torture, the future of many projects is now at risk because of a reduction in voluntary contributions by donors,” said Mercedes Doretti, the current chair of the Board of Trustees of the Fund.

In his message, the Secretary-General urged the international community to support the fund and thanked all governments and other contributors which have provided assistance. He also commended individuals and organizations that provide medical, psychological, legal and social assistance to torture survivors and their families.

Ms. Doretti said further support was needed to continue funding projects, including those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) assisting victims of sexual violence, programmes for genocide survivors in Rwanda, and a project in southern Iraq providing reconstructive surgery to dozens of victims of punitive ear amputation, a brutal method of torture systematically used under Saddam Hussein's regime.

Contributions to the fund rose to $11.6 million in 2008, but donations by UN Member States have been dwindling over the past two years to just over $9 million last year, according to Ms. Doretti.

The funding shortfall has forced the board to cut the number of grants it awards by 10 to 20 per cent, she added.

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