The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

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Committee against Torture

The Committee against Torture (CAT) is the body established pursuant to Article 17 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1984 (known as the Convention against Torture or CAT), to monitor the implementation of the Convention by the States Parties (of which there are currently 158).

The Committee began operating in 1987 and meets twice a year. It submits an annual report to the UN General Assembly and to all States Parties to the Convention against Torture. Its ten members are “experts of high moral standing and recognized competence in the field of human rights” (Article 17 of the Convention against Torture). They are elected for four years, with consideration being given to equitable geographic distribution, from a list of persons nominated by States Parties. They can be reelected once.

The Convention against Torture sets forth four different kinds of control that the CAT may exercise, although most of these mechanisms are dependent on the prior consent of the State concerned. An Optional Protocol to the Convention, adopted in December 2002 by the United Nations and entered into force in June 2006, establishes a system of regular visits undertaken by independent international (the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment) and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty. As of April 2013, this Optional Protocol binds sixty-eight States.

The mandate of the Committee against Torture is that of a conventional treaty-monitoring body: its jurisdiction is restricted to the States that have ratified the convention. Furthermore, States that do ratify the treaty may make reservations that restrict some of the CAT’s activities. Beyond this, the Convention against Torture allows victims of torture to submit their cases to the national courts of any country, provided the perpetrator of the crime is in the territory of the State in question.

Country Reports

Article 19 of the Convention against Torture establishes that each State Party must submit an initial report to the CAT on the measures undertaken to implement the Convention one year after it ratifies the Convention, and thereafter every four years. The CAT may make “general comments,” which are transmitted to the State concerned, and may decide to include such comments—along with any response received—in its annual report.

This mechanism is mandatory for all the States that have ratified the Convention.

Information Gathering and Confidential Inquiries

Article 20 of the Convention against Torture authorizes the Committee to receive information from States, intergovernmental organizations, NGOs, and individuals. If it appears from “reliable information” and “well-founded indication” that torture is being systematically practiced in the territory of a State Party, the Committee may ask the accused State for explanations. It may also designate one or more of its members to make an inquiry (which can include a visit to the territory, with the State’s consent) and report back to the CAT urgently. These inquiries are confidential, and their findings are transmitted to the State concerned with any appropriate comments or suggestions.

The CAT’s authority to carry out such inquiries is meant to be mandatory; however, certain States have rejected this competence by making a reservation against part or all of Article 20 upon ratifying the Convention. As of June 2015, the following States had made reservations and rejected the CAT’s authority to carry out the inquiries as foreseen in Article 20 of the Convention: Afghanistan, China, Equatorial Guinea, Erythrea, Kuwait, Israel, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Mauritania, Pakistan, Poland, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, and the Syrian Arab Republic.

State Communications

If a State Party considers that another State Party is not fulfilling its obligations under the Convention, it may, by written communication, bring the matter to the attention of that State Party (Article 21). If the two States do not reach a mutually satisfactory solution within six months, either State has the right to refer the matter to the CAT. The Committee can then make its good offices available with a view to finding a friendly solution, and it may, when appropriate, set up an ad hoc Conciliation Commission.

For a period of twelve months, the Committee can receive oral and written explanations. After this period, it submits a report to the parties concerned. However, the CAT’s ability to carry out this mandate is dependent on two cumulative conditions:

  • Both States concerned must have declared that they recognize “the competence of the Committee [under Article 21 of the Torture Convention] to receive and consider communications to the effect that a State Party claims that another State Party is not fulfilling its obligations under this Convention.” Sixty-one States Parties have currently accepted CAT’s competence on this issue.
  • The victim must have exhausted all available domestic remedies unless these remedies appear to be unreasonably prolonged or are unlikely to bring effective relief to the victim.

Individual Communications

This mechanism, established by Article 22, enables individuals (victims, members of their families, or their legal representatives) to submit complaints to the CAT. However, once again, this possibility is only available to individuals in States that have expressly recognized the CAT’s competence to receive and consider communications from or on behalf of victims (currently sixty-four States).

The Committee will not consider any communications that are anonymous or that it considers to be an abuse of the right of submission of such communications or to be incompatible with the provisions of the Convention. Furthermore, the Committee shall not consider any communications unless it has ascertained that the same matter is not being examined under another international investigation procedure and that the individual has exhausted all available domestic remedies (again, this shall not be the case if the remedies are unreasonably prolonged or unlikely to bring effective relief).

The background investigation is confidential and lasts six months, during which time the State under examination must submit written explanations or statements to the Committee, clarifying the matter and the remedies, if any, that it has taken. The CAT makes its decisions on the basis of this information. The views of the Committee are then forwarded to the State concerned and to the individual. These decisions have no mandatory force.

The following fifty-nine States have recognized the competence of the Committee under Articles 21 and 22: Algeria, Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guinea Bissau, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Russian Federation, Saint Marin, Senegal, Serbia, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

In addition, Japan, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and the United States have recognized the competence of the Committee under Article 21 only. Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Burundi, Guatemala, Morocco, Mexico, and the Seychelles have recognized the competence of the Committee under Article 22 only.

Visits to Detention Centers

An Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 18 December 2002. It establishes a system of regular visits undertaken by independent international and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty, in order to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. These visits will be carried out by a Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment of the Committee against Torture, as well as by one or several visiting bodies at the domestic level (Arts. 1, 2, and 3 of the Protocol). This Protocol entered into force in June 2006, one month after the deposit of the twentieth instrument of ratification or accession. As of June 2015, seventy-nine States have ratified it.

The Subcommittee is composed of twenty-five independent and impartial experts coming from different backgrounds and from various regions of the world. These members serve in their individual capacity and are elected for four years (eligible for reelection once) by States Parties to the Protocol on the basis of the usual UN criteria: high moral character, proven professional experience, equitable geographic distribution, and representation of different forms of civilization and legal systems of the States Parties. The Subcommittee meets in camera, as often as necessary and at least once a year, simultaneously with the Committee against Torture.

The Optional Protocol specifies neither the number of members of the national preventative mechanisms, nor the planning of its meetings, yet it sets up the guarantees to ensure its independence, professionalism, and adequate representation of ethnic and minority groups in the country. National preventative mechanisms may maintain direct and, if necessary, confidential, contact with the Subcommittee, which may offer them training and technical assistance with a view to strengthening their capacities.

Each State party to the Protocol will allow visits by the Subcommittee and national preventive mechanisms, “to any place under its jurisdiction and control where persons are or may be deprived of their liberty, either by virtue of an order given by a public authority or at its instigation or with its consent or acquiescence” (Art. 4). In order to enable the Subcommittee on Prevention to comply with its mandate, States undertake a series of obligations as listed in the Protocol (Arts. 12, 14, and 20). In particular, States undertake to receive the Subcommittee and national preventative mechanisms in their territory and grant them access to the places of detention. They grant the Subcommittee and national preventative mechanisms the opportunity to have private interviews with the persons deprived of their liberty, unrestricted access to all information referring to the treatment of those persons as well as their conditions of detention, and the liberty to choose the places it wants to visit and the persons it wants to interview. However, States Parties may postpone the implementation of their obligations—either toward the Subcommittee or toward national preventative mechanisms for a maximum of three years after ratification of the Protocol (extendable for another two years under certain conditions). States may object to a visit by the Subcommittee to a particular place of detention “only on urgent and compelling grounds of national defense, public safety, natural disaster or serious disorder in the place to be visited that temporarily prevent the carrying out of such a visit.” In any case, such grounds may not justify objection to a visit by a national preventative mechanism.

The Subcommittee and national preventive mechanisms communicate their recommendations and observations to the States Parties on a confidential basis. The Subcommittee on Prevention may publish its reports only in four situations: whenever requested to do so by a State Party; if a State Party makes part of the report public; if a State Party refuses to cooperate with the Subcommittee; or to take steps to improve the situation. In the two latter situations, the Committee against Torture is responsible for deciding to publish the report and may choose to make a public statement on the matter. By contrast, States Parties undertake to publish and disseminate the annual reports of the national preventative mechanisms. The framework for visits set up by the Optional Protocol applies during peacetime, internal strife, and conflict. Where there is an armed conflict, the ICRC retains its right to visit any detention place, as set up under humanitarian law.

Human rightsIndividual recourseTorture

List of States Party to International Human Rights and Humanitarian Conventions (no. 14)

Committee against Torture

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

52 rue Paquis

1202 Geneva, Switzerland

Tel.: (41) 22 917 92 39

Fax: (41) 22 917 90 12

For Additional Information: Bank, Roland. “Country Oriented Procedures under the CAT: Towards a New Dynamism.” In The Future of United Nations Human Rights Treaty Monitoring , edited by P. Alston and J. Crawford, 145–74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Imgelse, Chris. The United Nations Committee against Torture . The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2001.

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