UN anti-torture experts warn “increased risk” of ill-treatment and torture during COVID-19

Felicity Salina, International Law Officer

In commemoration of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the UN Committee against Torture, the UN Subcommittee Prevention of Torture, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the Board of Trustees of the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture issued a joint statement highlighting the effects of the pandemic among people in vulnerable situations.

Experts note the difficulty of ensuring health and safety standards in places where social distancing is virtually impossible to implement, such as detention centers and confined refugee camps. Many countries still lack the resources to conduct proper medical screening for individuals put at close quarters, including women and children. Treatment is also often inaccessible for those who have been diagnosed with the virus.

COVID-19, which has forced half of the world to a standstill for almost six months, pushes governments into taking various large-scale protective measures. Excessive force and coercion are regularly used in their enforcement. Such actions, the UN stresses, may amount to a violation of the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

Governments are mandated to exercise vigilance and to pay due regard to the importance of redress and rehabilitation for those especially affected by the crisis. UN experts also call for the reduction of prison population by minimizing pre-trial detention and incarceration, as well as monitoring of places of deprivation of liberty by independent bodies.