The Government of Cameroon, in collaboration with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Commission), organized in Yaoundé from 24-26 January 2012, a seminar on the prevention and suppression of torture.
The seminar brought together 35 participants from the ten regions of the country, representing civilian and military magistrates, judicial police officers (gendarme and police), penitentiary administration personnel, health professionals and civil society organizations, as well as the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms (see Annex I for a complete list of participants).
The seminar was conducted in three phases:
- Opening ceremony;
- Closing ceremony.
I- OPENING CEREMONY
The opening ceremony included statements by the African Commission Representative and the Minister Delegate at the Ministry of Justice.
In her opening address, Ms Lucy Asuagbor, Representative of the African Commission Chairperson, commended the Government of Cameroon for collaborating with the African Commission in organizing the seminar which, she stated, was within the framework of the Government’s implementation of one of the African Commission’s recommendations to Cameroon following the Commission’s examination in May 2010 of Cameroon’s Second Periodic Report submitted under the terms of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. It was the first time an African country was working in tandem with the Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Africa (CPTA), she underscored, which was an indication of the will of the Cameroonian Government to combat the scourge of torture.
As a measure to further emphasize the prohibition of torture as stipulated in Article 5 of the African Charter, she pointed out, the African Commission adopted the Robben Island Guidelines in 2002 and established as its monitoring mechanism the Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Africa. After recalling that one of the main principles of the Guidelines is that States should ratify international instruments against torture and implement them in domestic legislation, she commended the Republic of Cameroon for including Section 132 (a) in its Penal Code entitled “Torture” and for ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. Ms Asuagbor further encouraged the government authorities to deposit the instruments ratifying the Protocol.
The Representative of the African Commission Chairperson said it was her hope that the seminar will provide a forum for consultation on a Cameroonian approach to implementing the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, and the national prevention mechanism in particular. She further expressed the wish for the mechanism’s establishment process to be inclusive and transparent, including public consultations on the most appropriate manner in which the mechanism will take into account the country’s realities as well as the requirements of the Protocol.
In his opening speech, the Minister Delegate at the Ministry of Justice, on behalf of the Minister of State, Minister of Justice and Keeper of the Seals, wished a warm welcome to the Representative of the African Commission Chairperson and participants. He appreciated the good relations of cooperation between Cameroon and the African Commission and said the organization of the seminar was a clear indication of such cooperation. He further underscored the fact that the Government was willing to promote and protect human rights.
Referring to torture, the Minister Delegate recalled the fundamental conventions against torture which Cameroon has acceded to and adopted both at the international and regional level, and highlighted the major reforms implemented by the Government of Cameroon with the aim of adapting the country’s national legislation to international standards.
Deliberations during the seminar were conducted in plenary sessions and workshop sessions.A- PLENARY SESSIONS
During the plenary sessions, experts discussed with participants topics such as the international legal framework for combating torture, torture in places of detention, challenges in investigating torture, and protecting victims of torture. Seminar presentations were followed by discussions to provide clarification to the concerns raised by participants (see Annex II for a summary of the discussions).
1) The international legal framework for combating torture
The presentation was done by Jean Baptiste Niyizurugero, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Africa, and was intended to update participants on the various international legal instruments against torture. As such, the Committee Vice-Chairperson dwelled on the international and regional instruments to combat torture, including the binding and soft law instruments.
At the international level, he noted, there are general instruments prohibiting torture such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. He further laid emphasis on the specific instruments to prohibit and prevent torture such as the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Torture.
Mr Niyizurugero also emphasised the existence of other instruments to protect specific groups such as women, children and migrant workers, and insisted that torture is prohibited under international humanitarian law.
Referring to regional instruments, Mr Niyizurugero highlighted some relevant provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
With regard to the African context, he dwelled on the Robben Island Guidelines adopted by the African Commission in 2002 to facilitate the implementation of Article 5 of the African Charter relating to the prohibition of torture. The said Guidelines, he noted, takes into consideration the three areas of the legal framework for combating torture, which include the prohibition of torture, prevention of torture, and responding to the needs of victims.
These instruments provide for a universal and absolute prohibition of torture. They also reveal that the list of forms of torture in the conventional definition of torture is not exhaustive, he said, adding that the list may be expanded to include new violations of human dignity.
2) Torture in places of detention
In his presentation on torture in places of detention, Dr Michel Mahouve, Director of Human Rights and International Cooperation at the Ministry of Justice, stated the various approaches of the procedure adopted at the national and international level to address the issue of torture in places of detention. He dwelled on the general approach which consists of providing for basic safeguards to protect persons deprived of liberty and the specific approach of monitoring places of detention. He further highlighted the general standards dealing with the material conditions and procedural safeguards for the treatment of persons deprived of liberty, in particular safeguards against secret detention, the right to be informed of the reasons for the arrest, the right to legal representation, the right to remain silent, the right to challenge the legality of the detention, the right to be brought before a judicial authority, the right to visitation, and the right to medical treatment.
With regard to monitoring places of detention, Dr Mahouve recalled the various traditional mechanisms before focussing on the new mechanism instituted by the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT).
The traditional mechanisms, he said, include monitoring by the administration, judicial authorities and independent administrative authorities such as the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms, as well as civil society organizations.
The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, Dr Mahouve said, provides for mechanisms for monitoring places of detention which include the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) and the National Preventive Mechanism to be appointed or instituted in compliance with the Paris Principles relating to the establishment of national human rights promotion and protection institutions.
3) Challenges in investigating torture
The challenges in investigating torture were approached from a double perspective, including the obligations of judicial police officers and the obligations of health professionals. This module was aimed at familiarizing participants with the Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment adopted by UN General Assembly Resolution 55/89 of 4 December 2000 (commonly referred to as the Istanbul Protocol).
In the first part of the presentation, Mr Jean Baptiste Niyizurugero analysed the principles of action contained in the Protocol, among which is the obligation to investigate allegations of torture. This obligation is of a general nature, and the investigation may be undertaken even without a complaint or after a complaint is withdrawn. The obligation to investigate should not adopt a restrictive approach and should lead to the identification and punishment of perpetrators of torture. Beyond the context of a criminal procedure, an investigation may be undertaken by an independent authority such as the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms or an ad hoc committee. In such case, a public report has to be issued at the end of the investigation, with the State called upon to indicate measures to address the situation.
Mr Niyizurugero further examined the characteristics of an effective investigation under international law. Investigations, he said, have to be conducted by competent, independent and impartial authorities, and have to be prompt and thorough. As such, investigators have to be tactful when dealing with victims and witnesses, use appropriate interview and questioning methods, use the services of interpreters and experts, and make the necessary arrangements to preserve physical evidence of torture.
The expert indicated that there are several challenges in implementing these standards, including the lack of human and material resources, the lack of the necessary mandate and prerogative, the lack of political and administrative support, the limited number of pathologists and other relevant experts in the investigation of cases of torture, the lack of collaboration on the part of victims, and the investigator’s risk of trauma, empathy and routine.In the second part of the presentation, Prof. Essame Oyono Jean Louis, Anatomical Pathologist and Forensic Expert, indicated that according to the Istanbul Protocol, health professionals have a key role to play in addressing allegations of torture. He gave a summary of the physical and psychological forms of torture, and underscored the fact that the practice of torture has immediate and long-term effects on the victims. He further explained the role of a health professional in establishing evidence, which includes the following: check if the physical and psychological findings are consistent with the alleged report of torture; if the physical conditions contribute to the clinical picture; if the psychological findings are expected or typical reactions to extreme stress within the cultural and social context of the individual; if there are other stressful factors affecting the individual; and if the clinical picture suggests an allegation of torture. The exercise has to comply with established rules of medical practice and medical ethics.
The expert underscored that in conducting such task, a health professional is compelled to take some basic precautions. The informed consent of the person examined has to be sought, and the latter has to be informed of the different steps in the examination process. If the examination is conducted on the body of a living human being, the health professional has to be in total control and work without the presence of security officers and other state employees. He insisted that the expert’s report is always confidential, except in exceptional cases.
Prof. Essame Oyono concluded by deploring the fact that professional schools hardly offer forensic training programmes, a factor which deprives health professionals of the necessary skills for investigating and documenting torture, and wished for an appropriate solution to the problem.
4- Protecting victims of torture
In the module on protecting victims of torture, Dr Michel Mahouve recalled how the notion of the rights of victims has evolved in international human rights law, and indicated that the notion includes two main areas, namely the right to an effective remedy and the right to reparation and rehabilitation.With regard to the right to an effective remedy, Dr Mahouve focussed on the main areas in the Cameroonian legal system and international mechanisms.
Referring to the case of Cameroon, he presented the available mechanisms – mentioning also the evaluation made by international mechanisms on their effectiveness, such as the recognition of the competence of the domestic courts in suppressing the offence of torture, complaints mechanisms, and safeguards against impunity for perpetrators of torture which include the need for an independent and impartial investigation, prosecution and effective sanction.
Regarding the evaluation made by international mechanisms, the Committee against Torture and the Human Rights Committee have identified some obstacles to the effectiveness of complaints mechanisms such as the unwillingness to investigate complaints of torture, difficult access to the complaints of prisoners, and authorization for investigation from the Minister of Defence for offences that fall under the competence of the military tribunal. The committees further stated that investigations conducted still do not meet the requirements of independence and impartiality, and that Cameroonian courts are not very strict in supressing torture.
With regard to international mechanisms to protect the rights of victims, Dr Mahouve made mention of the judicial and non-judicial mechanisms.
Regarding judicial mechanisms, he analysed the mechanism of communication (complaint) and reported on Cameroon’s cases on torture pending before UN bodies and the African Commission. As for non-judicial mechanisms, he mentioned the mechanisms of reporting, special procedures and international periodic evaluations.
With regard to the right to reparation and rehabilitation, he recalled the traditional methods of reparation and rehabilitation under common law and the specific methods such as compensation for false arrest which is yet to be operational, given that the relevant commission has not been established. Dr Mahouve further mentioned the existence of funds to assist victims of torture such as the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture and the International Criminal Court’s Trust Fund for Victims.
For his part, Mr Peter Essoka, President of Trauma Centre Cameroon, did a presentation on the work of his organization in the rehabilitation of victims of torture. He started by recalling that the United Nations Convention against Torture is the legal instrument used to identify victims of torture. He indicated that victims of torture are identified on the basis of symptoms such as anxiety, fear, shame, memory loss, insomnia, depression, lack of self-esteem, and post-traumatic stress disorder; symptoms which were also highlighted by Prof. Essame Oyono in his presentation. Interviews with victims conducted by the Centre, Mr Essoka said, are confidential.Mr Essoka indicated that Trauma Centre Cameroon adopts a holistic approach, and that the organization does not receive financial aid from the government but benefits from the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture and the contributions of other organizations. He said that his organization assists victims of torture by providing them medical, mental, social, legal and financial assistance.
The people assisted by the Centre, he said, are identified on the basis of a set of well-defined criteria which are examined by a multi-disciplinary team that meets on a monthly basis. The people receiving assistance from Trauma Centre Cameroon hail from Cameroon, Burundi, Congo Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Rwanda and Central African Republic.
It should be noted that during the last plenary session, the African Commission and the Organizing Committee provided participants with hard and electronic copies of documentation.
B- WORKSHOP SESSIONS
Participants were assigned to two workshops to brainstorm on practical cases with the purpose of highlighting the responsibilities of the various professionals involved in the prevention and suppression of torture.
At the end of deliberations, recommendations were formulated and presented during the closing ceremony.
III- CLOSING CEREMONYThe closing ceremony included the following:
- A reading of the recommendations of participants (Annex III);
- A reading of a statement by participants (Annex IV);
- A closing speech by the Minister Delegate at the Ministry of Justice.
In his closing remarks, the Minister Delegate at the Ministry of Justice emphasized that torture is a degrading practice which should be strongly condemned. He indicated that the Yaoundé seminar was an important contribution towards building a society which respects human dignity. He called on all participants to be committed in the fight against the scourge of torture. He appreciated the fact that the participants hailed from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, as well as the role and expertise of the various speakers. The Minister Delegate further requested participants to make good use of the lessons learned during the seminar and reassured them that the government was willing to implement the recommendations formulated. Before declaring the session closed, he thanked the African Commission for its assistance and appreciated the contributions of the various stakeholders to the organization of the seminar.