• World
  • Jan 17

Explainer - UN Convention Against Torture

• The UN Human Rights Office urged the US state of Alabama to halt its first planned execution of a prisoner by nitrogen gas asphyxiation, saying it could amount to torture and violate US commitments under international law.

• Kenneth Smith, convicted for a murder-for-hire committed in 1988, is scheduled to be executed in Alabama on January 25 using the method, in which execution officials will bind a mask to his face connected to a cylinder of nitrogen intended to deprive him of oxygen.

• This will mark the first time in the US that a person will be put to death using nitrogen gas.

• Authorities in Alabama previously attempted to execute Smith in November 2022 using lethal injection, but the attempt failed.

• US states have found it increasingly difficult to obtain barbiturates used in lethal injection execution protocols, in part because of a European ban preventing pharmaceutical companies from selling drugs to be used in executions. 

• As a result, some states have sought to revive older methods such as firing squads, while Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma have introduced new gas-based protocols.

• The recently approved ‘Executions’ Protocol’ of the state of Alabama, allows for the use of nitrogen gas asphyxiation.

Concerns over nitrogen hypoxia

• UN experts are concerned that nitrogen hypoxia would result in a painful and humiliating death.

• They warned that experimental executions by gas asphyxiation – such as nitrogen hypoxia – will likely violate the prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.

• They expressed regret about the continuation of executions in the US, which contradict global trends towards the abolition of the death penalty. Botched executions, lack of transparency of execution protocols and the use of untested drugs to execute prisoners in the US have continuously drawn the attention of the UN mechanisms, including special procedures.

• Punishments that cause severe pain or suffering, beyond harms inherent in lawful sanctions likely violate the Convention Against Torture to which the United States is a party, and the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment that guarantees that no detainee shall be subjected to medical or scientific experimentation which may be detrimental to his health.

UN Convention Against Torture

• Torture seeks to annihilate the victim’s personality and denies the inherent dignity of the human being. Despite the absolute prohibition of torture under international law, torture persists in all regions of the world. Concerns about protecting national security and borders are increasingly used to allow torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. 

• Its pervasive consequences often go beyond the isolated act on an individual, and can be transmitted through generations and lead to cycles of violence.

• The United Nations has condemned torture from the outset as one of the vilest acts perpetrated by human beings on their fellow human beings.

• The eradication of the practice of torture in the world was one of the major challenges taken up by the United Nations only a few years after its establishment. 

• In order to ensure adequate protection for all persons against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, over the years the United Nations has adopted universally applicable standards.

• In 1948, the international community condemned torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. 

• In December 1975, responding to vigorous activity by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the “Torture Declaration”).

• The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the “Torture Convention”) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1984. 

• It was the result of many years of work, initiated soon after the “Torture Declaration”.

• The Convention entered into force on June 26, 1987 after it had been ratified by 20 States.

• In 2002, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture was adopted, a treaty aimed at preventing torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by allowing for an international inspection system for places of detention. 

• The Protocol also obliges States to set up independent National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) 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. 

• Torture is a crime under international law. According to all relevant instruments, it is absolutely prohibited and cannot be justified under any circumstances. 

• This prohibition forms part of customary international law, which means that it is binding on every member of the international community, regardless of whether a State has ratified international treaties in which torture is expressly prohibited. 

• The systematic or widespread practice of torture constitutes a crime against humanity.

Definition of torture

The term ‘torture’ means 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. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

How does the Convention protect people?

• The Convention absolutely prohibits torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. 

• Each State Party shall ensure that education and information regarding the prohibition against torture are fully included in the training of law enforcement personnel, civil or military, medical personnel, public officials and other persons who may be involved in the custody, interrogation or treatment of any individual subjected to any form of arrest, detention or imprisonment.

• Each State Party shall keep under systematic 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 in any territory under its jurisdiction, with a view to preventing any cases of torture.

Committee Against Torture

• As part of this instrument, a monitoring body, the Committee Against Torture, was set up. 

• Its main function is to ensure that the Convention is observed and implemented by all States parties. 

• The Committee against Torture is the body of 10 independent experts.

• It met for the first time in April 1988 in Geneva.

• The Committee against Torture works to hold States accountable for human rights violations, systematically investigating reports of torture in order to stop and prevent this crime.

• The Committee normally holds two regular sessions each year. Special sessions, however, may be convened by decision of the Committee itself at the request of a majority of its members or of a State Party to the Convention. The Committee elects from among its members a Chairman, three Vice-Chairmen and a Rapporteur. These officers are elected for a term of two years and are eligible for re-election.

The UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture

• Recovering from torture requires prompt and specialized programmes. The work of rehabilitation centres and organisations around the world has demonstrated that victims can make the transition from horror to healing. 

• The ‘UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture’, administered by the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva is a unique victim-focused mechanism that channels funding for the assistance to victims of torture and their families. 

• Established in 1981 with a mandate to support torture victims and their families, the Fund works by channeling voluntary contributions to civil society organizations providing legal, social, humanitarian, psychological and medical services.

• The voluntary contributions that the Fund receives, mostly from Member States, contribute to rehabilitation, reparation, empowerment and access to remedies for nearly 50,000 torture survivors each year. 

• Beneficiaries include human rights defenders, persons deprived of liberty, children and adolescents, refugees and migrants, victims of enforced disappearance, indigenous peoples, victims of sexual and gender-based violence and LGBTI persons, among others.

International Day in Support of Victims of Torture

• The UN observes June 26 as ‘International Day in Support of Victims of Torture’, with a view to the total eradication of torture and the effective functioning of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

• The Day is an opportunity to call on all stakeholders including UN Member States, civil society, and individuals everywhere to unite in support of the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who have been victims of torture and those who are still tortured today.

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