United against all forms of torture: Applying a cross-cutting perspective to prevent, prohibit and redress torture globally

18th EU-NGO Human Rights Forum Brussels, 1-2 December 2016


Executive summary

Despite the considerable legislative progress made at international, regional and national levels in the past decades, in practice, torture and ill-treatment persist worldwide. Indeed, in the context of escalating crises and protracted conflicts in various regions of the world, the challenges of preventing, investigating and prosecuting torture, as well as ensuring redress to its victims, are as relevant as ever.

While 2016 marked several milestones in terms of normative and legislative measures in the efforts against torture, recent global developments demonstrate the need to improve and adapt their implementation to rapidly changing realities and newly emerging challenges. Against the backdrop of global and European migration crises, counter-terrorism measures and the continued shrinking of space for independent civil society, action against torture and ill-treatment, already declared to be at the top of the EU’s political agenda, must be prioritised.

Today, some individuals and groups remain disproportionally at risk of torture and ill-treatment due to discrimination and marginalisation. At the same time, redress, reparation and rehabilitation available to torture survivors fail to match the scale of the problem and the growing numbers of torture cases. Even as the overall national and international anti-torture framework marks positive steps forward, many are left behind.

These challenges were discussed extensively at the 18th EU-NGO Human Rights Forum organised by the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the Human Rights and Democracy Network (HRDN) in Brussels on December 1-2, 2016. Human rights defenders (HRDs) and activists from over forty countries testified to the realities of torture and ill-treatment and reflected together about current policy approaches at national, regional and international levels and possible ways forward to effectively combat torture. The Forum took place at a timely moment ahead of the revision of the EU Guidelines on Torture.


Discussions at the Forum pointed to several key challenges in the fight against torture, including the impact of the lack of rule of law, including the absence or failure of legal safeguards, and a misunderstanding of the various forms which torture can take. Existing discrimination can make specific groups within society more vulnerable to torture and ill-treatment. In turn, a weak legal and judicial system, inefficient security and police forces as well as a lack of political accountability all perpetuate impunity. This undermines social and political trust and propels forward a vicious circle leading to more instances of torture. The issue of torture must be therefore viewed in all its complexity and addressed across policy areas and at all levels. It is further crucial that the overall human rights framework be respected in all circumstances, independent of perceived crises; civil society must further be given the space to promote and protect this framework.

Two key themes emerged in the discussions during the 18th EU-NGO Forum. One is that the EU and its member states already have at their disposal a wide range of tools and resources to promote efforts against torture and ill-treatment; the other stresses how the EU and its member states can further enhance their impact in this area by leading by example.

The Treaty of Lisbon, the Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy, the Action Plan on Human Rights and various human rights guidelines already commit the EU and its member states to following the vast majority of the recommendations made by the participants of the Forum. Unfortunately, as underlined by a number of testimonies, the EU and its member states still fail to fully implement their own policies in dealing with third countries. While providing substantial financial support towards global anti-torture efforts, the EU’s public commitment can falter at critical moments. The need for the EU and its member states to speak out more systematically about occurrences of torture and bring up individual cases during dialogues with third countries, including at the highest levels, was stressed throughout the Forum by participants from all geographical regions.

Participants also called for a more ambitious, proactive implementation of the Action Plan on Human Rights and the EU guidelines on torture, including by training staff at all levels to mainstream anti- torture efforts into all policy areas. Overall, participants sent the EU and its member states a resounding call for greater political will and resources to fully deliver on their human rights obligations and the commitments they have made to combat torture and ill-treatment, mainstreaming this work throughout political relations and human rights engagement with third countries as well as in trade, security cooperation and technical assistance.

Crucially, the EU’s calls to eradicate torture worldwide must go hand in hand with efforts to apply the same standards domestically. The EU and its member states cannot be perceived as credible human rights actors on the global stage if they do not adhere to international laws and norms themselves. Forum participants testified to the loss of the EU’s influence in some fora as a result of its disregard for human rights in responding to increased migration flows into Europe. To maintain their relevance and influence internationally, the EU and its member states must redouble their efforts to ensure that all policies and practices fully respect international human rights law and comply with international and regional legal obligations and commitments.

The EU faces particular challenges as the world’s largest donor to civil society working against torture, and for human rights activities as such. The changing global political landscape will likely result in NGOs and actors relying ever more on its financial and political backing, as other major donors realign their political and financial objectives. Responding to this global change will require increasingly close cooperation between the EU and civil society at all levels, to protect existing human rights work and to strategically think towards the next steps in responding to human rights challenges, including in the fight against torture.

The outcomes of the 18th EU-NGO Forum point to the far-reaching role the EU and its member states can play in combatting torture and ill-treatment in both external and internal policies. Today more than ever, their international human rights law commitments will be tested throughout policy areas – especially in the domains of migration and security policy. Where the EU and its member states rise to the challenge and prioritise human rights consistently and coherently, they have the opportunity to truly promote and support the eradication of torture and ill-treatment worldwide.

Key recommendations

Participants at the 18th EU-NGO Forum agreed that torture and ill treatment must be understood in the broadest possible scope, including setting, targets and acts, in order to best tackle and eradicate them in all their forms. The key recommendations below are grounded in this fundamental consensus and in the wide-ranging discussions at the Forum. Recommendations are directed to the EU, its member states and third countries on policy and practice at home and abroad, in bilateral relations and finally with the ambition of greater international, multilateral efforts to stop torture worldwide.