Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)
Entered into force: 26 June 1987
The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (Resolution 39/46) on 10th December 1984. The Convention requires states to take effective measures to prevent and investigate torture in any territory under their jurisdiction, and forbids states to transport persons to any country “where there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” Under Article 2: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Committee Against Torture have both acknowledged the devastating impact of VAW and argued for its inclusion into the anti-torture framework. They, along with others, have consistently recognised the reaction of VAW survivors mirrors the responses of survivors of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Powerlessness, post-traumatic stress disorder and physical deformity are just a few of the outcomes which the two groups share. Viewing VAW through this lens expands the definition of torture to include women’s experiences and is an important step in acknowledging the severity of these crimes. This recognition of VAW as a form of torture and discrimination persists irrespective of the situation in which the violence takes place – whether in armed conflict or peacetime, in the home, the street or in places of detention – or the identity of the perpetrator – whether a family member, member of the community, stranger or state official.
Committee Against Torture (CAT)
The Committee Against Torture (CAT) is the independent expert body appointed to oversee states parties’ implementation of the CAT. It consists of 10 independent experts who are nationals of states parties to CAT. They are elected by secret ballot and serve four-year terms. CAT meets three times annually.
In its General Comments, the CAT has discussed gender-based violence and state responsibility to eliminate it:
18. The Committee has made clear that where State authorities or others acting in official capacity or under colour of law, know or have reasonable grounds to believe that acts of torture or ill-treatment are being committed by non-State officials or private actors and they fail to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish such non-State officials or private actors consistently with the Convention, the State bears responsibility and its officials should be considered as authors, complicit or otherwise responsible under the Convention for consenting to or acquiescing in such impermissible acts… The Committee has applied this principle to States parties’ failure to prevent and protect victims from gender-based violence, such as rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and trafficking.
22. State reports frequently lack specific and sufficient information on the implementation of the Convention with respect to women. The Committee emphasizes that gender is a key factor. Being female intersects with other identifying characteristics or status of the person such as race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, age, immigrant status etc. to determine the ways that women and girls are subject to or at risk of torture or ill-treatment and the consequences thereof. The contexts in which females are at risk include deprivation of liberty, medical treatment, particularly involving reproductive decisions, and violence by private actors in communities and homes…
33. Judicial and non-judicial proceedings shall apply gender-sensitive procedures which avoid re-victimization and stigmatization of victims of torture or ill-treatment. With respect to sexual or gender-based violence and access to due process and an impartial judiciary, the Committee emphasizes that in any proceedings, civil or criminal, to determine the victim’s right to redress, including compensation, rules of evidence and procedure in relation to gender-based violence must afford equal weight to the testimony of women and girls, as should be the case for all other victims, and prevent the introduction of discriminatory evidence and harassment of victims and witnesses. The Committee considers that complaints mechanisms and investigations require specific positive measures which take into account gender aspects in order to ensure that victims of abuses such as sexual violence and abuse, rape, marital rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation and trafficking are able to come forward and seek and obtain redress.
According to the General Reporting Guidelines for CRC, states must include information on VAW in their reports to the Committee. Specifically:
States are obliged to keep under review interrogation rules, instructions, methods and practices as well as arrangements for the custody and treatment of persons subjected to any form of arrest, detention or imprisonment with a view to preventing torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The report should include information on… Any independent bodies or mechanisms established to inspect prisons and other places of detention and to monitor all forms of violence against men and women, including all forms of sexual violence against both men and women and all forms of inter-prisoner violence, including authorization for international monitoring or NGO inspection
Article 16 imposes upon States the obligation to prohibit acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The report should contain information on: …Living conditions in police detention centres and prisons, including those for women and minors, including whether they are kept separate from the rest of the male/adult population… Information on any officers within police forces and prosecutorial or other relevant offices specifically trained to handle cases of alleged torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or violence against women and ethnic, religious or other minorities…
While state reports tend to provide information on legislative framework, they may not always thoroughly reflect the reality on the ground: for example, they may focus on domestic law, even though the implementation of that law for rights-holders may not be effective in practice. The Committee invites input from civil society to be used in their review of states’ reports (see section immediately above).This gives civil society actors the opportunity to present alternative evidence, views, findings and/or raise issues that are not covered by the state report. This input is submitted in the form of a report and parallel to the state report concerned. These reports are often referred to as “shadow reports” or “parallel reports”.
Interested in submitting a parallel report to the Committee?
In order for the Committee to receive complaints against a state, the states party concerned must have made a declaration under Article 22 of CAT. This declaration recognises the authority of the Committee to receive and investigate complaints related to CAT’s provisions
Interested in submitting an individual complaint to the Committee?
Under Article 20 of the CAT, the Committee is empowered to carry out a confidential inquiry when it receives reliable information which it finds to contain well-founded indications that torture is being systematically practised in a state party. However, if the states party concerned has made a declaration under Article 28 of the CAT, the Committee may be prevented from carrying out an inquiry.
Interested in submitting information to the Committee?
Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT)
Entered into force: 22 June 2006
The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (Resolution 57/199) on 18 December 2002. The Protocol gives the creates the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT) gives it the right to visit all places of detention in States Parties to the Protocol and examine the treatment of people held there.
The Protocol also obliges States to set up independent National Preventive Mechanisms to examine the treatment of people in detention, make recommendations to government authorities to strengthen protection against torture and comment on existing or proposed legislation. The SPT assists and advises the National Preventive Mechanisms about ways to strengthen safeguards relating to detention and reinforce their powers and independence.
Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT)
The Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT) is a new kind of treaty body in the United Nations human rights system. It has a preventive mandate focused on an innovative, sustained and proactive approach to the prevention of torture and ill treatment. The SPT is composed of 25 independent and impartial experts coming from different backgrounds and from various regions of the world. Members are elected by States Parties to the OPCAT for a four-year mandate and can be re-elected once.
The SPT is mandated to routinely conduct country visits to ensure states parties have an adequate and sustainable torture prevention framework in place. Prior to this visit, the SPT invites CSOs and other non-state actors to provide information on particular areas of concern within the relevant state. The states subject to country visits are chosen by the SPT through a random selection process to ensure all states parties undergo regular visits.
During the visit, the SPT is able to privately interview persons “deprived of their liberty” (e.g. prisoners, or people detained because of mental health conditions or illnesses) and any other persons who may be able to provide information relevant to their investigation, including Government officials, representatives of national human rights institutions, custodial staff, lawyers, doctors, family members and CSOs. Any individual or group providing information to the SPT will be exempt from any form of sanction or reprisal for having done so. If relevant, the SPT may also conduct an advisory investigation of the states’ progress in establishing its National Preventative Mechanism.
Want more? Read the SPT’s guidelines online.
Case Study: Country Visit to Benin (2008)
From 17 May to 26 May 2008, the SPT conducted a country visit to Benin. During the visit, the SPT conducted an investigation of Benin’s frameworks to prevent torture and other forms of ill-treatment:
- Legal framework: Constitution of Benin and the Constitutional Court; legal codification of the offence of torture
- Institutional framework: Police and gendarmeric complaints and monitoring processes; Prison monitoring bodies and complaints; prosecutorial oversight; judicial oversight; monitoring by NGOs/CSOs; provision for legal representation/legal aid
In its discussions with CSOs and other members of civil society, the SPT noted its concern for the general lack of awareness surrounding legislation to establish an NPM. For this reason, it was recommended Benin make efforts to “foster public debate concerning the NPM in order to ensure adherence to the principles – openness, transparency, inclusiveness and independence – in the process of adoption of the legislation and the establishment of the NPM.
During the visit, the SPT also conducted investigations in prisons and noted specific concern for the treatment of women:
- In Cotonou prison, the women’s quarters were separated from the men in that one had to go through a closed metal door to enter the women’s quarters. The door was guarded by a male detainee guard in a green uniform. In practice, the delegation observed that on a number of occasions the male detainee guard and other men (including the chef de brigade) entered the women’s quarters with no warning. There were four buildings in which detainees slept, but approximately 60 women, including babies and young children and all the female adolescent detainees, slept outside for lack of space. Detainees reported that there were no available places to buy in any of the four buildings due to the overpopulation. The conditions outside were extremely harsh and unhygienic, particularly for those women with young babies or for pregnant women.
- The situation in the women’s quarters in the prisons visited was further complicated by the fact that female adolescent detainees were accommodated with adult women, as were babies and children up to age four living with their mothers in the prison. The lack of provision for differentiation among the female prisoner population is in violation of UN Standard Minimum Rule 8(d) for the Treatment of Prisoners.
According to article 17 of the OPCAT, State parties have an obligation to establish National Preventative Mechanisms (NPM). NPMs are independent national bodies for the prevention of torture and ill treatment at the domestic level. It is the responsibility of each state to ensure that it has in place a NPM which complies with the requirements under the OPCAT.
To oversee the functionings of NPMs, the SPT conducts advisory visits to states parties. Much like the country visits, the SPT conducts these visits through a random selection process, requesting information from CSOs prior to and during the visit. At the conclusion of the visit, the SPT provides recommendations on the establishment of NPMs, including its mandate, powers and methods of working.
For more information on engaging with the UN treaty bodies, see ‘Working with the United Nations Programme: A Handbook for Civil Society’.