UCT group joins global fight against torture

19 September 2011

UCT's Prof Lillian Artz and UWC's Lukas MuntinghHuman rights abuse: UCT's Prof Lillian Artz and UWC's Lukas Muntingh are leading a project that will look into the use of torture in Africa.

Many around the country and further afield recently commemorated the death of struggle icon Steve Biko (see story on pg 1). This adds some perspective to the work done by a new initiative to address the use of torture in African countries.

Despite the fact that most African states have ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), this human rights violation is very much alive, especially in situations and areas where people are denied many of their liberties.

Claims that torture still takes place in detention facilities in emerging African democracies are often met with indifference.

In spite of Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 5 of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, which guarantee the right of all people to be free from torture, and the efforts of the African Commission on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR), much work remains to be done to prevent and eradicate torture in Africa.

Enter the European Union-funded Article 5 Initiative, a collaborative effort between UCT's Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit (GHJRU), the University of the Western Cape's (UWC) Community Law Centre, the University of Bristol Human Rights Implementation Centre, and the African Policing Civil Oversight Forum.

The initiative focuses on six post-conflict African countries (Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa and Uganda), and aims to develop guidelines and norms to prevent and eradicate torture and other ill-treatment in places of detention.

Standards such as those set by the UNCAT are often too abstract to have operational meaning. Furthermore, international instruments are often seen as 'foreign', or imposed.

"With Article 5, we aim to develop clear standards that are context-relevant to each country," says initiative co-ordinator Professor Lillian Artz, who is based at the GHJRU.

"In South Africa, for example, prison conditions vary greatly," explains project co-ordinator Lukas Muntingh of UWC. "Some are world class, but some are well below what we should expect in a constitutional democracy."

It's another remnant of the continent's colonial past, he argues.

"In Africa, we have this colonial hangover. The ways of the colonial powers were perpetuated by the people who came into power, and there isn't always great awareness around human rights issues."

It was only with the death of Steve Biko in 1977 that the UN General Assembly commenced work on the drafting of the UNCAT, observes Muntingh.

"Prisoners should be made aware of their rights, and those in charge of their responsibilities. After all, what is monitored is managed."

But why now?

"These countries are all going through a critical period of democratisation and development," says Artz. "The timing is good to work within that reformatory gap."

The project will kick off with baseline studies to establish the state of affairs in each country.

Though the project is still in its inception, the research team has well-established relationships with human rights institutions in the target countries, as well as with the African Commission on Human and People's Rights.

For now, the team is looking to establish an appropriate methodology. And later there may well be opportunities to expand its examination of places of detention beyond prisons and police cells to psychiatric institutions, repatriation centres and juvenile detention centres, among other facilities.

The point of departure though, they agree, is that there is never an excuse for torture; the prohibition must be absolute.

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