The Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Torture (OPCAT) 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”.
The setting up of the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) as one or several visiting bodies designated or maintained, at the domestic level, is in fact already long overdue as the Philippines is obligated to establish this preventive system within one year from its ratification of the OPCAT in 2012.
Nonetheless, the Medical Action Group (MAG) welcomes the on-going legislative process at the House of Representatives for the enactment of the NPM to complement the implementation of Republic Act No. 9745 or the “Anti Torture Law of 2009”. This piece of legislation seeks to prevent the act of torture and other forms of ill-treatment and to complete the necessary protection mechanism to end torture impunity.
While the OPCAT does not specify a specific form or structure for the NPM and the states are free to designate one or several new or existing bodies as their NPMs. It does however provide minimum requirements for the NPM according to which it should be:
- Independent (its function, personal and institutional capacity);
- Provided with sufficient resources (financial, human, logistical or material);
- Have the expertise necessary to fulfil its mandate;
- Have powers and guarantees, in particular access to all places of deprivation of liberty, information and persons; and
- Enjoy privileges and immunities (i.e. protection from sanctions and confidentiality of information).
One of the possible organizational forms that the NPM can take is the designation of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). Under the 1987 Philippine Constitution, the CHR is to ‘exercise visitorial powers over jails, prisons, or detention facilities. But these are merely general visitorial powers. However, the visiting mandate of the NPM is specifically aimed at the prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and has particular features prescribed by the OPCAT for unrestricted and unannounced visits. Thus, the NPM should be proactive and non-adversarial in its approach.
The MAG is fully supporting the proposed set up reflected in House Bill No. 5193 authored by Reps. Kit Belmonte and Barry Gutierrez for the establishment of the NPM as an attached agency to the CHR. An attached body to the CHR can make possible the diversity of expertise, but also gender balance and the adequate representation of ethnic and minority groups.
Nonetheless, whatever form the NPM may take, what is essential is that the NPM can carry out its mandate to conduct regular visits to all places of detentions without restriction. Their visits should lead to reports and concrete recommendations to improve the protection of persons deprived of liberty. After which, an annual report on their activities and their findings must be published after consultations with relevant government agencies and non-government organizations. The NPM can also give comments on relevant laws and regulations and propose for necessary reforms.
However, the setting up of the NPM should not be limited to legal consideration as it also involves health issues. The MAG believes that the participation of medical and health professionals in these visiting mechanisms is essential to address health issues related to torture and ill-treatment, examines and gives treatment to detainees, recommending actions to be taken to improve the treatment of detainees, to evaluate the health system and to assess the impact of general conditions of detention on the heath of detained population.
The United Nations Manual on the effective investigation and documentation of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (or ‘Istanbul Protocol’) was developed to specifically use for torture documentation using scientific evidence based gathering. The Istanbul Protocol is now an internationally recognized guideline for medical and legal experts. It can be used as a tool to gather and document accurate and reliable evidence in connection with cases where torture is alleged and to help practitioners to assess the consistency between allegations and medical findings.
The medical professionals are in essence a key to prevent torture impunity. The medical documentation and medico-legal reports (MLR) that they write are important facts that can be used as pieces of evidence in legal or administrative proceeding for prosecuting torture cases and facilitating redress and reparation for survivors. It is therefore important to increase the capacity of medical practitioners in evaluating the physical and medical conditions of persons deprived of liberty using of the Istanbul Protocol. Thus, the Department of Health (DoH) needs to take an active role in the work of the NPM.
While the Republic Act (RA) No. 9745 or Anti-Torture Law has a number of strong provisions relating to victim’s access to a physical, medical and psychological examination, but until now, torture victims still rarely have access to a legal counsel and a medical doctor immediately after arrest and during detention. And even if investigating authorities guarantee the access to medical examination, the lack of formal knowledge and capacity of the medical doctors who are often among the first persons to come into contact with torture survivors creates a medical complicity as some doctors don’t perform the medical examination properly and diligently either due to low awareness on torture documentation or because of the intimidation or the fear of reprisal from the government authorities.
Thus in many cases, the investigations concerning allegations of torture are either completely unreliable. In some cases, medical examination is only allowed after inquest as torture victims were only seen by doctors assigned to any police or military health centers or to government hospitals who often just do cursory “check list” physical examinations with no inquiries about how torture marks may have been inflicted and the medical certificates have no reference to torture and the need for medical treatment.
Prevention of torture must also go hand in hand with prison reform. Prison condition as MAG observed is the most punishing aspect of doing time in jails. The general prison conditions are not only found dangerous to health and to human life. It breeds diseases, breaks down of one’s sanity and exacerbates tensions among inmates. Sexual violence and abuse are also being reported rampant in the correctional and custodial system. This is despite the passage of the Republic Act 10575 or the Prison Modernization Act of 2013. Major reforms must be undertaken that could give prison inmates a chance at rehabilitation and a meaningful life after imprisonment.
MAG has been advocating for prison reform for the past three decades. We have in fact submitted a recommendation to the Office of the Executive Secretary in 2011 on the Amended Guidelines for Recommending Executive Clemency particularly on Section 3 regarding Extraordinary Circumstances. We then proposed that:
- for humanitarian reason, to lower the age cut-off requirement to sixty (60) from seventy (70) years old; and
- for medical reason, to include terminally ill prisoners and debilitating diseases.
This as we argued conforms to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners.
For the NPM to effectively work, the Subcommittee on the Prevention Against Torture has given special value on civil society’s involvement. Not only that individuals working for civil society members should be give a place in the NPM but the appointment procedures should be made transparent, inclusive and participatory.
For MAG, the creation of the NPM should not be considered merely a “quick fix solution” but rather should be given careful review of the its mandate, jurisdiction, independence, membership, powers and responsibilities and working methods, to ensure that it fully complies with the international human rights standards.
The work of the NPM should go beyond regular visits and recommendations by conducting awareness-raising, training, or even launching of localized public inquiries, consultation and coordination meetings on how to address torture and ill-treatment and the general conditions of detention.
Ending impunity requires accountability. But it can start from preventing the commission of the human rights violation through collaborative efforts.
Medical Action Group
Note: MAG’s position paper was presented during the Technical Working Group Meeting of Committee on Human Rights, at the House of Representatives on 10 February, 2015.